dam the future

The Yukon government never met a mine it did not like. The reader should excuse the double negative in the above sentence and instead concentrate on why mining can be so negatives. Mines need three things from nature.

The Yukon government never met a mine it did not like.

The reader should excuse the double negative in the above sentence and instead concentrate on why mining can be so negatives.

Mines need three things from nature.

They need to extract ore from an ore body; they need water to be used in the processing of the ore and they need energy to extract and process the ore.

Ore bodies in and of themselves are usually environmentally benign.

The problem lies in where they are located and how they are operated.

The Yukon has special and distinct ecosystems that should not be disturbed.

These range from the Peel Watershed to the north, down to the southeast Yukon.

To get at ore bodies, portions of the surface ecosystem has to be removed.

The term overburden is often applied to the living surface that covers the ore.

The choice of using ‘burden’ shows the value that is applied to the plants and animals that live on the surface.

Removal of this burden, in an environmental sense, is not a healthy thing.

It is very rare for an ecosystem to return to what it was prior to mining development.

Ecosystems are just too complicated for anyone to figure out how to fully restore them.

The trick to protecting ecosystems is to limit where mining can occur.

This can be done through land-use planning.

This slow process is happening in the northern Yukon and the Peel Watershed, but it will be many years before the entire Yukon is done.

The second problem for any mine in the Yukon is the availability of water.

Much like farmers, miners tend to complain that there is either too little or too much water for their particular projects.

Sometimes a mine can experience both water situations at different times of the year.

After a mine has finished using water it is usually treated and then discharged.

Therein lies the problem.

Treatment can be inadequate, or based on antiquated technology or outdated mine designs.

This results in either contaminated water or too much water being discharged into sensitive ecosystems.

If the ecosystem is really unlucky it gets both.

The third issue mines face is the lack of energy to extract and process the ore.

The Yukon hydro grid is maxed out, with little to no surplus power available.

If and when new mines come on stream, and should they be connected to the grid, power is going to have to be provided.

This means more dams.

Forget Mayo B. It is just going to add about five megawatts.

If Carmacks Copper comes on stream it will require infrastructure pumping out about 10 megawatts of power. For comparison, Bellekeno requires about two megawatts.

And these are just the mines that are foreseeable in the near future.

Given the gung-ho permitting process, it is highly likely that one or two more mines could come on stream in the next decade.

The power for these mines is not available through hydro, at least not yet.

Burning diesel generators might not be an option either.

Depending on the outcome of the upcoming climate-change talks in Copenhagen there could soon be very strenuous efforts to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels.

This means that mines will require fossil-fuel-free power, and in a Yukon context that could mean hydro power.

To provide a lot of hydro power means the Yukon will need another dam.

No matter where it is located, it is going to raise opposition.

This will be due to social, economic and environmental considerations.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, it emerges that mining has a huge cumulative effect on the Yukon landscape.

The search for ore bodies, the discharge of waste water and the need for power all have massive negative environmental impacts.

This has to be offset with humanity’s need for minerals, the local jobs created and the possibility of some revenue for governments.

Note that this last point is debatable in the Yukon as royalty rates are so low the territory is virtually giving minerals away without receiving any payments in return.

But it is the need for power that will dominate the mining industry in the near future.

Much as the development of the tarsands in Alberta has directed a lot of the power-generating capacity of that province towards one particular industry, something similar is happening in the Yukon.

Mining’s quest for power means the Yukon will see big hydro-project proposals in the near future.

All this does give rise to a point about mining.

One particular industry should not be dictating how the Yukon chooses to develop its energy sector.

Yukon residents could decide that more hydro dams are not the future they want.

This would in turn mean limiting the number of large-scale mines allowed to operate at any one time.

There are precedents, though.

There is an energy strategy and a climate-change strategy.

Now it is time for a mining strategy.

Otherwise there are going to be a lot of dams in the future.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.