A quarter billion dollars down the Faro pit

The Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) is of the opinion that it is time for an audit of the Faro Mine remediation and care and maintenance programs.

The Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) is of the opinion that it is time for an audit of the Faro Mine remediation and care and maintenance programs.

YCS is a grassroots environmental non-profit organization, established in 1968. One of our areas of focus is mining and mining projects. We believe that mining in the Yukon should occur only in places where such activities are ecologically and culturally acceptable. Where mining occurs, it should be done in a way that ensures that perpetual treatment upon closure is not necessary.

This brings us to the abandoned Faro mine, which will have to be monitored and cared for in perpetuity. This mine was once the biggest lead-zinc mine in Canada, but now it is a toxic pit in the heart of the Yukon that is leaking potentially poisonous metals and contaminants into the surrounding creeks and valleys.

Elevated levels of fluoride, aluminum, zinc and selenium can have negative impacts on plants, animals and fish. And there are elevated amounts of these contaminants flowing off the Faro mine site. Of particular concern are the amounts of zinc being released into the downstream portion of Rose Creek.

At water monitoring site X14 on Rose Creek downstream from the mine, zinc levels are consistently higher than the standards reccommended by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. The council is comprised of the environment ministers from the federal, provincial and territorial governments, including the Yukon. It establishes guidelines for contaminants which provide science-based goals for the quality of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Here are some figures for sample site X14. In January of 2016 zinc levels were measured at 0.148 milligrams per litre (mg/L), in February at 0.165 mg/L, and in March at 0.155 mg/L. Levels reached a high of 0.171 mg/L in April, but then dropped off to 0.075 mg/L in May, 0.043 mg/L in June and reached a low of 0.037 mg/L in July. August levels inched back up to 0.046 mg/L.

The CCME recommended guideline for zinc is 0.03 mg/L at X14. This is to protect freshwater aquatic life (fish and invertebrates) and their habitat.

Fluoride, aluminum, iron and selenium, also exceed CCME standards at different monitoring stations around the mine site.

Since the Faro Mine’s abandonment by its private sector operators in the late 1990s, the federal government has provided funding for its care and maintenance, as well as funding to develop a closure and remediation plan. While the federal government provides the dollars, it would appear that the Yukon government gets to manage a lot of the money.

According to the Treasury Board of Canada, the amount spent since 2005 on remediation is more than $241 million. The amount spent on care and maintenance is over $29 million. These federal government funds mostly flow through to the Yukon government’s assessment and abandoned mines branch of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

After spending a quarter of a billion dollars over the last decade one would think that there would be some environmental improvement but, as the zinc levels show, it would appear not. CCME guidelines are continuously being breached.

So much time and money has been spent on the Faro Mine site, and according to the Treasury Board of Canada the following results have been achieved: actual cubic metres remediated: zero; actual hectares remediated: zero; actual tonnes remediated: zero.

Of particular concern is the lack of openness regarding what is happening on site. Only after persistent requests by the Yukon Conservation Society has some of the water data for 2016 been made available to the general public through the Yukon Water Board’s website. The zinc levels discussed above are obtained from this site.

Given that so much money has been spent, given that contaminants are spewing out of the mine site, and given that getting public information about what is going on at the site is extremely difficult, the Yukon Conservation Society is of the opinion that it is time for an independent, external audit of the Faro Mine remediation and care and maintenance programs.

Lewis Rifkind is a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society.

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