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Letter: If cyanide is in the water and nobody tests it, does it really cause harm?

Many unanswered questions left weeks following Victoria Gold heap leach landslide
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We’re apparently waiting on water test results. From Tuesday. Today is now the next Wednesday. We were not informed how many samples were taken and from where. There was also no indication that sampling would now begin on a regular basis. Just that we can’t understand the situation or act beyond immediate "containment" measures until sample results are received.

By now, I’m confident the engineers will have used drone imagery or other technologies to calculate the tonnage of ore that left "containment." But I’m not an engineer and this number hasn’t been made public. The Victoria Gold Corporation's 2023 annual report reports 34.6 million tonnes of ore on the heap and 2024 first quarter report lists an additional 2.0 million tonnes. By looking at the photos, let’s estimate a conservative 15 per cent of the 36.6 million tonnes of ore was deposited into Dublin Gulch. That’s 5.49 million tonnes of ore containing cyanide now sitting on old placer tailings — gravels and cobbles that allow water to drain easily through them.

The logic of "no harm occurred until proven otherwise" is an old industry standby. The onus of proof is placed on those who are experiencing the harm and who have fewer resources to collect the technical data required for "proof."

I refuse to accept this logic as the basis for the responding to the failure of Victoria Gold’s Eagle Gold Mine heap leach facility. I believe, on the balance of probabilities (i.e. it’s more likely than not), that cyanide has and will continue to be released into the McQuesten watershed in acutely toxic levels. I will continue to believe this until proven otherwise.

A few samples taken by the territorial Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR) five to seven days ago is insufficient proof of anything. Where does the groundwater from Dublin Gulch come back to the surface? Did EMR take samples above or below this location? Do we even know where this location is? How quickly does groundwater move?

Also, how long does it take a drop of water to flow from the confluence of Dublin Creek and Haggart Creek to the mouth of the McQuesten River? Isn’t this crucial information that could quickly be calculated by people with existing data and expertise? Unfortunately, this too has not been made public. Using a crude Google Earth measurement tool for Haggart Creek and the Paddling in Yukon Guidebook for the McQuesten River, it’s a 165 kilometre journey. Five days is 120 hours.

So even if the cyanide-contaminated water moved at a very slow rate, a five-to-seven day delay in test results means that the sampled water is already nearing or in the Stewart River. Now what?

What is the quality of a spill response if a cyanide pulse has already passed through the most vulnerable area? Aren’t preventative or mitigating measures moot at this point? If yes, then acting based on probability not sample data seems like a better option.

Is sampling still important? Yes, it allows us to link on-the-ground observations and weather events (i.e. rain) to cyanide concentrations. It will allow for better predictions and responses in the coming weeks. The millions of tonnes of ore in Dublin Gulch aren’t going to be transferred into a lined storage facility any time soon. This is not a one-and-done event. Sample data will also be crucial for enforcement investigations.

What if I’m wrong and comprehensive action to reduce the harm to ecosystems downstream is not needed? What if we mobilized and my fears did not materialize? Wouldn’t that be great? I vote for erring on this end of the spectrum, not realizing we did too little, too late.

Until proven otherwise, immediate action is needed. Finding out seven days from now could be too late for the life in Haggart Creek and the McQuesten River.

PS: the Chinook are on their way home. Are we really going to let them test the water for us?

Krystal Isbister

Watson Lake, YT