Riches should not impoverish

Looking west from the excavated skarns, adits and shafts along the Copper Haul Road and across the valley from the Grey Mountain viewpoint, you can easily make out the signs of a century of mining in Whitehorse's backyard.

Looking west from the excavated skarns, adits and shafts along the Copper Haul Road and across the valley from the Grey Mountain viewpoint, you can easily make out the signs of a century of mining in Whitehorse’s backyard.

Despite noble efforts at re-vegetation by the likes of Joan and Doug Craig, community environmental pioneers, the old Whitehorse Copper mill site will take many more decades for the millions of tons of fine-grain tailings to naturally be returned to the soil conditions needed to support the original plant community. The Craigs showed that heavy-duty composting and irrigation could speed the process along though.

Modern reclamation practices, arguably, would not let this happen again in the Yukon. However as Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan noted in his report tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Canadians have a massive legacy of contaminated sites to deal with.

The report pointed to the fact that the $7.7 billion allocated by Ottawa for cleanup costs is wholly inadequate to deal with the estimated 22,000 contaminated sites already designated for attention. “Many of the sites are buried and out of sight, but they will impose environmental and financial burdens on coming generations,” said Mr. Vaughan as quoted in a Canadian Press article by Heather Scofield.

Faro’s huge abandoned mine site offers another case for the enforcement of strict environmental standards for any future mining efforts. Vaughan’s report describes an “estimated 64,000 hectares of contaminated soil and groundwater on this site. Leaching of acids and metals into groundwater and surface water; long-term treatment of contaminated water (at least 100 years) and sludge, and potential physical instability of tailings dams and waste rock dumps.”

Will more than a century of mitigation outweigh the original economic benefit of the mine? How about at other big sites such as the Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the low-level radioactive waste sites around Port Hope, Ontario, which have and will continue to demand the lion’s share of the currently available cleanup funds?

What happens today in countries that have lax environmental standards or insufficient means to enforce the provisions that they do have? The defeat in October 2010 of C-300, a federal bill to promote responsible environmental practices and international human rights standards on the part of Canadian mining, oil and gas corporations in developing countries, certainly did not advance progress in this area.

As Martin Luther King Jr. stated in a speech on March 17, 1966 at Southern Methodist University: “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God … We must have time and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”

From our youth protesting against preferential treatment for mining companies in the Peel River watershed at the Yukon legislature to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate hosting a multimedia exhibit on the impacts of mining operations on people and ecosystems around the world in the Chapel at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City earlier this week, or the Anglican priest Michel Dubord and his congregation at St. John’s Church in Ottawa campaigning against the export of cancer-causing asbestos to developing countries, voices continue to be raised calling for social and environmental accountability by governments and mining companies alike.

Who should decry the environmental degradation of the Earth and the consequent suffering of people as a result of extractive industry abuses? Who should work for industry standards in Canada and abroad to prevent mining abuses?

As we celebrate Yukon Mining and Geology Week, the answer should be clear: we all should. After all, the riches of the Earth were not intended to impoverish us or lead to the destruction of our environment.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact