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Letter: Quartz mine reclamation in the Yukon – the past is also the present

We were not surprised by the “suspended operations” of Minto Metals Corporation on May 13.

We were not surprised by the “suspended operations” of Minto Metals Corporation on May 13.

Rather, we were disheartened by how Minto’s story is nothing new — the abandonment of corporate responsibility for quartz (hard rock) mine reclamation continues to be the norm, not the exception. If there is any hope of a different story, where mines are reclaimed to the standard companies and regulators promise, we need transformational change to our mining systems.

We are two PhD students, living in Whitehorse and Watson Lake, and studying quartz mine reclamation. We consider reclamation to be the entire process of transitioning land from a mine to an alternative state or condition. In the midst of mineral legislation change and continued mine abandonment, we wanted to look at the history of reclamation regulation in Yukon — how did we get here?

Reclamation plans and security deposits have been legislative tools since 1972

Quartz mining in the Yukon was first regulated under the Dominion Lands Act in 1898 and Yukon Quartz Mining Act of 1924, which focused on the administration of mining claims and leases. In the 1960-70s, widespread public concern about industrial contaminants across North America led to the creation of various environmental regulations.

In the Yukon, the Northern Inland Waters Act (NIWA) was enacted in 1972 to regulate the deposit of waste into water. NIWA established the Yukon Territorial Water Board and gave the board legal authority to require security and reclamation plans to protect water quality. The Faro Mine, opened in 1969, got its first water license in 1974, which included the requirement to pay security and submit a reclamation plan. These reclamation plans were continuously updated and financial securities were increased. Responsible “abandonment” was a concern constantly expressed by Ross River Dena Council and others throughout operations and during public hearings for the Faro Mine’s water licensing in the 1980-90s. There was not an absence of regulation. Despite these requirements for reclamation plans and financial securities, the Faro Mine became one of the most contaminated and costly remediation sites in Canada.

The Yukon Quartz Mining Act was amended in 1998 to specifically address reclamation

The abandonment of Faro and other large mines across Canada in the 1990s increased public concerns about reclamation.

The Yukon Quartz Mining Act was amended to include “Part II Land Use and Reclamation” in 1998 with the explicit purpose to: “ensure the development and viability of a sustainable, competitive and healthy quartz mining industry that operates in a manner that upholds the essential socio-economic and environmental values of the Yukon” and further amended in 2013 to add “and respects the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”

Part II requires mines to have a quartz mining license (QML) in addition to a water license. QMLs can include reclamation requirements and a Certificate of Closure can be issued when these requirements are met. This is our current legislation. Attempts to regulate reclamation are not a “new” thing.

Yukon Zinc Corp. (Wolverine Mine) and Minto Metals Corp. (Minto Mine) were permitted under the modern regulatory regime. Both companies failed to meet their reclamation and financial promises and responsibilities. Minto Mine began operations in 2007 and in 2021, their annual report states that 9.2 hectares out of 138.3 inactive hectares have been reclaimed. Perhaps most telling, “reclaimed” is defined in the report as “contouring, soil placement and revegetation” rather than actually meeting the reclamation outcomes promised to Selkirk First Nation on whose land the mine is located. Both Wolverine and Minto had consulted affected First Nations, submitted detailed reclamation plans, committed to progressive reclamation, provided annual reports on reclamation progress, and paid some financial security. Despite government regulation, reclamation hasn’t progressed much.

Interestingly, the two mines (Brewery Creek and Sä Dena Hes) where significant reclamation activities have been completed, were originally permitted pre-1998, begging the questions: what has updated regulation achieved since 1998 and what really needs to change moving forward?

Trying the same regulatory approach is unlikely to result in better reclamation outcomes

The Yukon government discussion paper on new mineral legislation states the following objective: “our aim with new legislation is to ensure a new mining regime respects Indigenous rights, supports a competitive and responsible mining industry, protects the environment and supports the modern-day and future needs of Yukoners”.

This intention is almost identical to the purpose of Part II in our current quartz mining legislation. The discussion paper suggests clarifying reclamation objectives, increased reclamation planning, requirements for progressive reclamation and annual reporting on reclamation as potential approaches for new mineral legislation. These mechanisms are already part of the current regulatory system – they’ve been tried and are either insufficient or are not being meaningfully implemented/enforced.

The good news: there is 50 years of reclamation history to learn from and an opportunity for change!

Regulating reclamation is hard and not a Yukon-specific challenge. New mineral legislation could address some reasons companies are failing to meet reclamation obligations. Our intention here is not to blame and shame, but to highlight the need for systemic transformation, not minor tweaks.

In a jurisdiction where a mine closure certificate has never been issued and mines continue to be abandoned as taxpayer liabilities, it’s time to face reality in order to generate bold, transformative ideas for alternatives:

1) From the moment of free-entry staking, decisions are made on the premise that mining is the most beneficial use of land. Rhetoric about better reclamation technology and increases in financial securities is used to justify mining development without addressing issues of Indigenous rights and sovereignty, access to land, the realities of long-term and cumulative impacts, the actual necessity of mining or limiting our need to reclaim in the first place.

2) Mines are built to generate wealth, in the form of minerals, and reclamation costs money. There is a direct corporate benefit to avoid or delay reclamation and underestimate financial securities. Bankruptcy absolves personal responsibility of executives and shareholders. Trust in corporate social responsibility is an inappropriate accountability mechanism for reclamation.

3) Reclamation does not reverse quartz mining. The landscape is fundamentally transformed. Positioning reclamation as returning land “as close as possible to the pre-mining state” is a strategic narrative used to gain social license during permitting. It is time to be realistic about what reclamation can achieve and address the likelihood of perpetual care and long-term water treatment.

4) Reclamation is about land — control of, and care for, land. Who gets to make the decisions about what is done, how it is done and ultimately what “reclamation success” means is political. Mechanisms are needed that privilege Indigenous consent and local values in decisions about what constitutes adequate reclamation and care for land.

The difference between what mining companies and regulators promise for reclamation outcomes and what is delivered is a matter of social and environmental justice.

Our ongoing research has found that instead of evaluating reclamation outcomes, annual reports and regulatory inspections simply list activities. We found no documented evidence of the reclamation goals outlined in plans being compared to actual outcomes. Companies, with fully developed reclamation plans and commitments to progressive reclamation, continue to go bankrupt and abandon sites — despite increased planning, data gathering, regulation and consultation. Without transformational change, the land and the communities who rely on and care for that land will continue to hold the liability for the vast difference between promises and outcomes.

Krystal Isbister & Caitlynn Beckett