Paul West-Sells, president and CEO of the Western Copper and Gold Corporation, talked during the 2017 geoscience forum about the proposed Casino Mine’s tailings pond and the process they are undertaking to get it approved. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)

Casino aims to start YESAB panel review by end of 2018

‘Elephant in the room’ a 286-metre tailing pond wall

This is a corrected story. See below.

Casino Mining Corporation hopes to have its proposal resubmitted to the Yukon Socio-Economic Assessment Board (YESAB) by the end of 2018, company president Paul West-Sells said at the 2017 Geoscience Forum & Trade Show on Nov.19.

The parent company of the project, Western Copper and Gold, submitted its original proposal in January 2014. After a nearly two-year review, YESAB determined it needed more information to address a series of environmental concerns around the project. It bumped the project up to a panel review — the highest level of environmental assessment in the Yukon — largely over concerns surrounding the tailings pond.

Concerns surrounding the Klaza caribou herd, whose range is included in the proposed project, were also cited.

West-Sells referred to the tailings pond as the “elephant in the room” for the project. At its original proposed dimensions — a 2.5-kilometre wide, 286-metre tall wall containing 11 square kilometres of tailings — that might be an apt metaphor. Casino plans to complete a study on the best option to manage tailings by the end of April 2018.

At the 2016 geoscience forum, West-Sells said that a revamped version of the tailings pond would use 80 per cent less water. This redesign is supposed to keep more dangerous, acid-generating material at the back of the pond, where it would be less likely to spill out if the dam breaks.

West-Sells said a lot of the concerns surrounding the tailings pond stem from the August 2014 Mount Polley disaster in B.C., when a tailings pond burst, releasing 10 million cubic metres of contaminated water into the Quesnel Lake water system.

If the dam failed at the proposed Casino Mine, it could release tailings into the Donjek, White and Yukon rivers.

This is the first panel review the Yukon has ever undertaken, making Casino the first Yukon-based mining project in the territory to undergo such a review process. However, West-Sells said similar reviews have been conducted on other Outside projects, particularly in B.C.

“This is a process.… We’re not the first (mine) to go through this,” he said, noting that those reviews “ended up being very successful for those mines.”

Casino is currently working with environmental assessment officers, First Nations and communities to address the concerns raised by the YESAB process, working from a “blank sheet of paper,” he said.

“You just sort of work through, considering different trade-offs, different ideas,” he said.

West-Sells said Casino is committed to “getting it right” when it comes to the design of the tailings pond.

Despite that pronouncement, Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, said regardless of how Casino reworks its proposal, he isn’t sure “it can satisfy the environmental community.” The tailings pond, he said, is simply too big.

“It’s a huge project and I just don’t think the Yukon environment can take it,” Rifkind said.

Even if the tailings pond could be built in a way that could be deemed to be safe, he said, how long the site will remain there and who will be responsible for its care in the long-term has yet to be determined.

“Who looks after this site 100 years from now?” he said. “How long (is the tailings pond) meant to last? Nothing lasts forever.”

“It’s all very depressing.”

Rifkind also said he has concerns for the Klaza caribou herd, and that the road for the proposed project runs directly through their territory.

“You can basically kiss that herd goodbye,” he said.

The proposed mine is predicted to produce 8.9 million ounces of gold and 4.5 billion pounds of copper over a projected 22-year mine life.

West-Sells said that a mine of this size is what the industry wants and needs in the Yukon, pointing to the Resource Gateway Project, which will see $360 million in federal and territorial money to upgrade 650 km of access roads by 2025. This would benefit not only the proposed Casino mine, but the proposed Coffee and Selwyn mines as well.

There is a projected deficit in copper production versus demand in the next 10 years, he said.

“We need mines much bigger than Casino to make up that deficit in the next decade,” he said.

Once Casino has submitted its update proposal, YESAB has up to 15 months to complete the panel review. If Casino makes its self-imposed April deadline, that would mean a decision by July 2019.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

Corrections: This story originally contained incorrect information. Casino Mining Corporation plans to submit a study on the best option for tailings management by April 2018. It plans to submit an environmental and socio-economic statement to YESAB by the end of 2018.

A reference to the size of the Casino tailings dam relative to the Mount Polley dam has been removed after Rifkind acknowledged he had no basis for the comparison. The News regrets both errors.

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