A community event on the public and environmental costs of mining clean up dissolved into booing and jeering at the Yukon Public Library when a representative of the Yukon Department of Energy Mines and Resources (EMR) unexpectedly turned up – and spoke up – at an event largely attended by environmentalists.
Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), gave a presentation entitled “Abandoned Mines in the Yukon: The Financial Picture” Jan 29. It was so popular the YCS had to turn some people away at the door. Organizers promised a follow-up presentation in a couple weeks.
When a mine is abandoned – that is to say, permanently shut down, without intention of being reopened by a parent company or a new buyer – things can get tricky, says Rifkind, especially when it comes to the cost – and definition of – remediation.
“For a territory this size,” said Rifkind, “and with the population we’ve got, we’ve got an awful lot of large abandoned mines.”
Rifkind pointed out, part of the trouble with these kinds of projects is that companies, governments and environmentalists using the same kind of language often mean very different things, especially when they talk about remediation.
For a company he said, remediation might mean just capping something off so it can’t be used anymore and cleaning up the immediate site. For the government, that might mean ensuring the site if free of toxins and not leaking into and damaging the environment. For an environmentalist, that might mean a total restoration of the site to a place where the boreal forest can return (which is, Rifkind noted, sometimes impossible).
If a company goes bankrupt or otherwise bails out of doing a clean up and care, the government – and, by extension, the taxpayer – is on the hook for it, including the infamous Faro mine, which has reportedly already cost the federal government $350 million and is estimated to cost more than $500 million by the time its finished.
Mines which were given the greenlight pre-2003 are the responsibility of the federal government, but those approved beyond that point are a territorial responsibility. This means the Yukon government must finance cleanups when mining companies can or will not.
YG was recently stung by this in the 2017 case of the Kotaneelee natural gas site; when parent company ELFO Inc. went belly up, YG was stuck with the bill for capping off one of the wells, which is expected to cost $2.4 million.
“Every dollar spent (on remediation for orphaned wells) is a dollar less for YG to spend on other things: hospitals, schools, policing, lower taxes, whatever,” Rifkind said.
Rifkind noted the YCS is not against mining but wants to see it done “in the correct place, in the correct way.” This means accepting that in some instances, when a mine is all tapped out, things will never go back to the way they were before in that spot; it might require, for example, treating the water at that site “indefinitely” which is a “hard pill for some environmentalists to swallow” but something that needs to be accepted if we want the economic benefits resource extraction provides.
The best way to ensure the environment – and Yukon taxpayers – are protected is to ask for proper (ie, large enough) security when approving mines, Rifkind said. A security is a sum of money paid out by a company to ensure that, if they go bankrupt, there is something set aside for the clean up of their sites, similar to when renting a hotel room you are charged a deposit; if you trash the room, you don’t get your deposit back.
“The company is going to get their money back if they do a good job (and properly remediate the site),” Rifkind says.
At the end of the presentation, Paul Christman, chief mine engineer for the EMR – who stood silently against the wall while Rifkind spoke – introduced himself. He was outrightly booed by the crowd. One of the moderators had to call for “civil discussion” so he could be heard.
Christman said the value of mines can’t just be measured in royalties to a community, but that one has to look at the various “direct and indirect” economic benefits individual mining operations bring to the territory.
For his part, Christman said he initially moved to the Yukon to work on the Wolverine Mine project, “where he bought a house, and spent money at various Whitehorse businesses.” The value of mines like Wolverine to Yukon communities were more complicated than direct profit but offered other economic and social benefits, he said.
A mining company isn’t like a roastry or a microbrewery, though, said Rifkind, which flatly adds or subtracts economic benefits to the community it works in and the takes away a few jobs if it goes bankrupt. Mining has a much larger scale and longer term impact on a place.
“The problem with mines, though, is that the mess is huge,” Rifkind countered.
Christman stayed after the presentation was over and offered to speak with concerned citizens and offer an alternative perspective. “I agree with a lot of what Rifkind was saying, it’s just that it’s being framed in a really one-sided way,” said Christman. “A lot of this is historical and the regulations and reality (of how we handle securities) has changed over time.”
“Any mine owner must submit a reclamation and closure plan for review and approval before the mine licence is issued, and this plan must be updated throughout the life of the project,” Christman said in a follow-up statement via email.
“The Government of Yukon’s Mine Site Reclamation and Closure Policy provides direction and clarity so hard rock mineral production occurs in an environmentally responsible manner. Our policy and guidelines are based on modern industry standards and are consistent with national policies.
“Public participation is an integral part of a responsive mining industry and I appreciate that the Yukon Conservation Society encouraged people to participate in the review processes,” he said.
The YCS presentation is available online at http://yukonconservation.org. Information on the Yukon government’s policy on reclamation and mine closures can be found at http://www.emr.gov.yk.ca/mining/yukon_mine_reclamation_closure_ policy.html.
Contact Lori Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org