Mining the public

The costs of managing the mess at the Faro lead-zinc-silver mine are truly mind-boggling. Once again, it raises questions about whether mining is…

The costs of managing the mess at the Faro lead-zinc-silver mine are truly mind-boggling.

Once again, it raises questions about whether mining is worth the bother.

The open-pit mine and its associated tailings pond, a huge lake of sickly looking grey-green goo, occupy a 5,000-hectare site in the mountains above the town.

To put it in perspective, that’s equivalent to 88 Tank Farms, the property where Whitehorse developer Brad Taylor wants to build 340 large residential properties.

So we’re talking an area that can accommodate 29,900 housing lots.

It’s big.

But everything about the Faro operation is.

The mine was once the largest lead-zinc mine in the world.

In 1990, it was producing 550,000 tonnes of lead and zinc a year, trucking the concentrate to Skagway, Alaska.

The mess from the industrial activity was similarly huge.

A kilometre away from the tailings pond, concentrations of poisonous metal in vegetation are comparable to some of the highest recorded in the world, according to a report drafted by Gartner Lee.

Samples taken from a 769-kilometre area around the mine found three times the normal amount of environmental lead levels in animals and plants.

And the belt of heavy metal contamination stretches to Pelly Crossing, 180 kilometres away.

Ottawa was responsible for licensing the mine. It is now responsible for cleaning it up.

It estimates the initial cost of mitigating the damage at up to $850 million, enough to pay 100 mineworkers $80,000 a year for 106 years.

The initial work on stabilizing the toxic place is going to take up to 40 years, roughly the amount of time the mine operated.

After that initial work is done, Ottawa expects to pay up to $5 million every year to maintain and monitor the site.

Today’s experts expect that work to be necessary for at least 500 years.

We’ll repeat that: 500 years.

It’s staggering.

And all at public expense.

The mining companies that created the mess are gone. They declared bankruptcy.

If they had to build this expense into their business plans, they never would have opened at all.

Too often, governments heavily subsidize projects for the upfront jobs, royalties and taxes.

Too often, future generations have to pay the true costs of production. In this case, 25 generations are on the hook for the mess.

Ridiculous.

With base metal prices sky high and the next mining boom upon us, the defunct Faro mine serves as a warning.

There’s often a lot of hoopla surrounding mining ventures.

But as good as a mining prospect may seem today, the hidden costs of production — the monitoring, cleanup and reclamation costs — must be worked into the profitability equation.

We suspect, once that’s done, that it’s often not worth the bother. More often than not, mining companies mine the public not the ground.

Which is why government has an obligation to vigorously review, regulate and monitor projects.

Clearly, a failure to do so costs generations of its citizens dearly.

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