We are reacting to the flurry of criticisms of the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Board’s work on two major resource development projects - Northern Cross’s Eagle Plains multi-well exploration program and the Casino mine proposal.
On Feb. 24, the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines suggested that Yukon’s assessment process, which he acknowledges has been considered to be “a hallmark of certainty, responsibility and fair process,” is now broken. This claim, echoed by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, is made despite the fact that YESAB reviews between 200 to 250 applications each year, the vast majority of which are approved. The claim is made, in part, on the basis of the recent recommendation to elevate the assessment of Northern Cross’s proposal to the executive level of YESAB.
Central to this claim is the focus on the time that has elapsed since Northern Cross’s original application. The implied and worn charge of “unnecessary bureaucracy” is worth examining more closely.
Who wasted time during the assessment period? The record shows that most of the time was spent waiting for additional information from Northern Cross. YESAB noted that many important details were missing. Four requests for additional information were issued by YESAB to Northern Cross. Northern Cross’s answers to questions were frequently incomplete, inadequate or absent. It took them almost a full year to submit their final response. This wasn’t submitted until the very last day of the evaluation period.
And still, there are many issues not adequately addressed. In addition to the threats to wildlife, the lack of baseline data (e.g. water), cumulative effects, etc., there is the issue of radioactivity. Radioactivity is a marker for deposits of oil and gas. In general, the “hotter” the radioactivity, the better the chances of finding gas or oil.
What is less widely known is the potential danger posed by bringing this radioactive shale to the surface, either as drill cuttings or water contaminated with radium, a known carcinogen. Drilling records from Northern Cross confirm the presence of “anomalous radioactivity” in the Eagle Plains black shales. Some levels exceed Canadian health limits, contradicting assertions by Yukon’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources and suggestions that wastes are not “thought to pose any risks.”
Drilling wastes have already been disposed of in a Whitehorse land treatment facility not designed or approved to deal with radioactive waste. No detailed testing of the level or type of the radioactivity encountered has been carried out. Nor is there any commitment by Northern Cross to do so in the future.
The assessment process is intended to provide an acceptable level of security from harm for the Yukon and Yukoners. In most cases it seems to be doing this without delay - but projects with the potential for serious and long-term damage need to be studied carefully.
And if proponents stall and delay the process by not providing adequate/complete information, they can hardly proclaim they are victims of bureaucratic delays. The assessment process may need fine-tuning - including a clear requirement that the proponents provide complete proposals and responses to information requests on a predictably timely basis.
Lois and Sandy Johnston