Stopping mining messes before they start

If you get an old-school miner talking about the good old days they'll regale you with tales of hard days and wild nights. But once the party was over, no one stuck around to clean up the mess.

If you get an old-school miner talking about the good old days they’ll regale you with tales of hard days and wild nights. But once the party was over, no one stuck around to clean up the mess.

Decades of sloppy mining practices have left a toxic legacy that will take years to clean up.

Today mining companies are much more responsible environmental stewards than their more impetuous predecessors.

That’s where Dr. Amelie Janin comes in.

The new NSERC Industrial Research Chair at Yukon College will spend the next five years working with mining companies researching technologies to mitigate and remediate the environmental damage their operations cause.

“It is really applied science,” she said. “The objective is to help the mining companies improve the environmental programs and improve the technologies that they are using on site.”

The majority of the project’s funding comes from the federal government through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, but four mining companies in the Yukon are also on board.

All of them have committed to match the federal funds – $100,000 each year – for the first two years for the project.

“It’s going to guide us in what options we want to look at and what the best options are,” said Ron Light, the general manager for Capstone Mining’s Minto mine. “Hopefully it sets the stage for successful and sustainable development of future mines in the Yukon.”

The Minto mine will be in operation until 2022, but the company is already looking at closure plans.

“As an industry we tend to focus on active mining operations, however, the ultimate success depends on how we manage our entire life cycle of the mine. That includes the closure and the reclamation,” said Light. “Capstone hasn’t previously closed a mine, so the opportunity to tap into her expertise, particularly looking at new technologies and the applications in the North this early in the process, is a huge benefit for us.”

Capstone, Alexco, Yukon Zinc, and Victoria Gold formed a consortium to work with Yukon College to get this project off the ground.

Having industry on board for a project like this is great, said Janin.

“It’s not every company in the world that’s willing to give money to research programs,” she said.

Along with the funding commitment, the companies are also providing access to their operations so Janin can research environmental technologies in a Yukon-specific context.

“Basically it will be about developing new technologies or adapting technologies,” she said. “There are lots of technologies that are used in the south and they could be used in the North, but they aren’t because they’re not sure if it will be as efficient as it should be.”

Janin started her job at the beginning of the month, so it’s still too soon for her to say exactly what kinds of technologies will be deployed when fieldwork starts this summer, she said.

“We’ll probably start several projects simultaneously,” said Janin. “For sure, one will be of passive treatment of discharge water.”

Passive water-treatment systems don’t require electricity, labour, machinery or chemical inputs to operate.

They are often the preferred method of treatment in mine reclamation because they can be put in and left alone.

An example is a bioreactor, which on the surface looks like a wetland or pond, but under the surface bacteria are busy breaking down or sequestering toxins.

“It does need to be monitored, but it’s not as expensive to maintain as active treatment, said Janin.

She also plans to start some vegetation experiments and research into risk assessments.

“It’s more like understanding the fate of the contaminants,” said Janin. “Maybe look at the bioavailability of the contaminants (how easily they can be absorbed by plants and animals), because there are a lot of studies that have been done down south, but there are some characteristics in the Yukon that we can work with and I think it would be beneficial to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the Yukon.”

Janin is meeting with the companies this week to talk about their site conditions, reclamation work and their hopes for the project.

Both Janin and Light said they are looking forward to to the meeting.

“It’s always nice to have that face-to-face, that one-on-one and actually talk the talk of what’s coming and what we can look forward to and what approaches we can take,” said Light.

Janin is also looking forward to taking her work out of the lab and into the field.

“It is applied science and I feel that I can help, I feel like it’s useful,” she said.

Contact Josh Kerr at