by Lewis Rifkind
Conservationists in the Yukon are often accused of being anti-mining. While the Yukon Conservation Society has opposed certain mines, we do not oppose all mining. All YCS asks is that mining be done right and in socially and environmentally acceptable areas.
Looking ahead – always a speculative venture in the Yukon mining sector – it is perhaps instructive to discuss some big mining projects that might, or might not, incur the wrath of those looking out for the environment.
First up is the gold mining project known as Coffee Creek proposed by Kaminak Gold Corporation. Located on the south side of the Yukon River, it is approximately 130 kilometres south of Dawson City. Access would be mostly via existing placer roads but would require about 29 km of new road construction. A proposed cyanide heap leach project, this technology has been used (and more importantly more-or-less successfully reclaimed) in the Yukon at the Brewery Creek mine near Dawson City.
While the devil will always be in the details, this project does not at first glance seem too bad. It will be interesting to see the documents submitted as part of the environmental review process to understand what is actually being proposed and what environmental mitigations and compensations are intended.
Victoria Gold (sometimes known as Dublin Gulch or Eagle Gold) is another gold project located about midway between Mayo and Keno, about 40 km off to the west of the Silver Trail. It has gone through a Yukon Environment and Socio-Economic Assessment Board review and is in the process of receiving its water license, but the project still requires financing. The site is in a region that has been heavily explored for decades, which means there is already habitat fragmentation due to seismic lines, drilling pads and access roads.
This project, if managed and remediated correctly, could be a ray of sunshine when compared with the mess left over from the old galena mines in and around Keno City. Galena is a lead-silver mineral, and the toxic legacy from these old mines is but one of the sites in the Yukon that taxpayers are paying to clean up. This is not to put Keno down; it is a great place to visit and is one of the Yukon’s best kept secrets. Go visit now before it gets all touristy.
It is worth mentioning that both of these companies appear to have cooperative and respectful working relationships with their respective First Nation governments. It would seem that gaining community license is important to these companies, and that is one more positive aspect of their operations.
Now let us look at some projects that, from the environmental community’s perspective, are complete non-starters, or as YCS likes to call them: environmental horror shows.
As always, the massive Casino copper-silver-gold-molybdenum mine heads the list. This project is being proposed by the Western Copper and Gold Corporation, and is located roughly due west of Pelly Crossing and due south of Dawson City. Basically, there are four main problems with the project.
Number one is the size of the earthen tailings dam. At 238 metres high, it would be the tallest structure west of Toronto, even though it is only made of earth. This is the same design and construction of the Mount Polley dam that failed in British Columbia – except that one was only 35 metres high. This one would hold back about 947 million tonnes of wet tailings and 658 million tonnes of potentially reactive waste rock and overburden materials. That’s about 642 million cubic metres. Or over half a million Canada Games Centre swimming pools. When the dam fails, all that material would spill downstream with disastrous consequences for the environment.
The second problem is the proposed access road. It goes straight through the grounds of the Klaza caribou herd. While the road would no doubt be controlled access, these sorts of roads do tend to become general access once the mine is done. That would lead to greatly increased human hunting of this herd. The road in turn would lead to additional roads and trails, thus contributing to even more habitat fragmentation.
The third problem is the energy consumption of the mine, which would dramatically increase the Yukon’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Yukon’s current greenhouse gas emissions are about 718 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Since the Casino mine would burn liquefied natural gas for on-site energy, it would release about 716 kT of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This one mine would double the Yukon’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a good thing.
The fourth big issue is what happens when the Casino mine project closes. That earthen tailings dam is going to require inspection, care and maintenance forever. Should it start to erode 50 years from now, should it start to subside 100 years from now, should it start to leak 250 years from now, someone is going to have to notice it, figure out the repair, then pay for the repair to be done. That someone is future generations of Yukoners. And we’re going to have to keep doing that. Forever.
Casino’s proponents have not put a price tag on this remediation effort, but by comparing it to the Faro mine, we can get a sense of the likely costs. Although it’s a little hard to confirm these numbers given the difficulty of obtaining facts and figures on the cleanup, Faro is estimated to take 400 years – and one billion taxpayer dollars – to clean up. Since Casino will have to last forever, it too will likely add a hefty long-term bill to Yukon taxpayers. In short, this mine is not just a gamble – it’s a clear loss for the Yukon.
This article has not even touched upon the myriad other environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the proposed Casino mine, from increased highway traffic from LNG trucks and ore trucks, as well as the sheer pressure on social services and infrastructure from the mine’s massive scale.
The other mining project that is raising eyebrows among those concerned with the Yukon’s environment is called Howards Pass and is being promoted by the Selwyn Chihong company. This lead and zinc deposit is located on the N.W.T./Yukon border, about equidistant between the Nahanni Range and North Canol roads.
This is yet another massive proposal that will require a long access road, this time along the N.W.T. border down to Tungsten; then lead and zinc concentrate trucks would flow through Watson Lake to Stewart, B.C. That’s right, a 1,000 km road trip for low value products just to get to tidewater. And we are talking a lot of trucks; about 94 large highway trucks every day transporting ore and supplies.
The Howards Pass access road enhancement from Tungsten to the actual mine site is on the N.W.T. side of the border and is currently going through an assessment by the Mackenzie Valley Review Board. Given the impacts, this project will have on the Yukon there is talk that public meetings will be held in the Yukon as well.
The actual mine site will be entirely within the Yukon and will most likely consist of multiple pits or underground addits. Each will have an associated waste rock pile and there will have to be some form of large tailings storage dams or piles. The environmental impacts could well be profound, given the geographic area this project would sprawl over.
While development details on the actual mine are still being worked out, the scale and size of this project are certainly raising eyebrows in the environmental community. This is one to watch.
Mining is not all bad. Even in a Yukon context it can be done right. That does not mean every mine must be approved, nor disapproved. Size, location and details are all unique aspects to every project that must be examined.
So, as Yukoners, let us work on protecting the land, the air and the water by getting mining right.
Lewis Rifkind is the Yukon Conservation Society mining analyst.