Development threatens watersheds

Industrial development threatens water and fish in the Stikine, Iskut and Unuk watersheds, say 36 scientists who signed a letter to BC Premier Christy Clark last week.

Industrial development threatens water and fish in the Stikine, Iskut and Unuk watersheds, say 36 scientists who signed a letter to BC Premier Christy Clark last week.

And while every project is assessed, no one is considering the cumulative impacts of having it all happen so close together, they said.

A 334-kilometre-long transmission line, 11 minesites, 18 hydroelectric sites and a coal bed methane well are currently proposed for the area, as well as roads, pipelines and “haphazard human infrastructure that will undoubtedly follow,” the scientists’ letter said.

At risk are salmon and wildlife habitats and fisheries in Canada and Alaska.

One of the 36 scientists who authored the letter is a Yukoner.

Dr. Donald Reid is a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. He lives in Whitehorse.

While most Yukon projects are not as densely located as in BC, there are similar concerns for the territory, said Reid.

The biggest difference is that Yukon’s mining industry is even further developed, he said.

“It’s not entirely too late, but obviously some of the things are already happening and there’s certainly no interest within the current administration to slow that down,” said Reid. “The political opportunity does not seem to be particularly real.”

Reid has two main concerns for the territory.

The first is too much country is being opened to public access and the second is that watersheds may be polluted because of improper, or leaky tailings ponds.

“I am concerned about the risk,” he said. “Tailings ponds could break, you can get pollution from them that could destroy a whole drainage. I am also concerned about the risk to certain ungulate populations by increased public road access.”

He cites as examples the new roads going into the Casino Mine property northwest of Carmacks and another going into the Red Mountain mine project northwest of Teslin.

Both areas have been largely untouched by roads until now.

Without this undisturbed wilderness, which acts as refuge areas for heavily hunted big game, we put our food security at risk, said Reid.

“We need some core areas left behind that aren’t roaded,” he said. “What is potentially at risk is that we’re going to put so much pressure on specific drainages, with repeated incursions of new mining roads and potential pollution sources, that we won’t be in a position to measure those impacts in advance.”

But the Yukon Environmental And Socio-Economic Assessment Board does consider cumulative effects, said chair Stephen Mills.

“It’s a component of every one of our assessments,” he said. “And that’s been the case since we commenced our assessments in 2005.

“There’s been parties that have raised concerns with the rate of development in the Yukon and the number of projects. But we don’t do assessments in a vacuum. We ensure that with projects we assess, we consider them in combination with the impacts that are already being felt, as well as what we anticipate to be coming in, in the future.”

The board has even looked at the cumulative effects of the record levels of exploration – an activity that is not included in the board’s mandate.

Apart from recording claims at the mining recorder’s office, no permits, applications or notices are required to stake a claim and begin the first level of exploration under Yukon’s free entry system.

When it comes to exploration, the assessment board depends on the government to relay information on what work is going on.

“When all this activity started to occur, a lot of people were seeing the large claim maps that were coming in and they were saying, ‘Wow, that’s got to have an impact,’ and so we started to look at some of the key wildlife areas in the White Gold area,” said Mills.

Since then, the board has done studies to gain baseline information on moose, caribou and sheep in the busy area south of Dawson City.

Cumulative effects studies have also been initiated for the Freegold Road area outside of Carmacks, the Rackla Gold area north of Mayo and the North Canol area in eastern Yukon.

And while First Nations and the territorial government are working with the board on some of these studies, there are no guarantees about what any of it will lead to – the board’s job is just to give recommendations, said Mills.

And the studies are not easy work.

Because there is so little information, the board is trying to play catch-up and be proactive, all at the same time.

Plus, when YESAB was established, it was believed other things, like land-use plans, would be too. Those plans would be a great tool in this work, said Mills – especially when considering Reid’s concerns for core wilderness areas.

“With the lack of land-use plans in a lot of the Yukon, it does make it more challenging,” Mills added.

And when it comes to staking and first-stage exploration, the board still has to depend on the government to relay information coming into the mining recorder.

“It isn’t a back door,” said Diane Reed, director of the development assessment branch with the Yukon government. “What we’re doing is we’re working as information gatherers to assure that the assessors get the best and most up-to-date information to look at cumulative impacts of proposals coming into the system.”

A change in regulation to require staking and first-stage exploration programs file an application with YESAB, couldn’t do much more than what is already happening, said Reed.

“We believe that we are actually in a good position at this point in time,” she said. “We’re a small jurisdiction. We’re able to be very nimble. We have a real interest, on behalf of the industry, in working with us. We are collecting the data and we are collecting it in a very timely matter.”

Even if tools established in the Yukon First Nation’s agreements – like land-use plans – are lagging behind, self government gives aboriginal groups a better position to stay on top of things.

They are better equipped to hold the territory to task or review applications about developments on their own traditional territory, there are numerous examples of litigation on the issue in the territory and First Nation governments are in a stronger place to negotiate contribution agreements, said Reid.

“In some ways the First Nations are more in the drivers’ seat,” he said. “That’s a major contrast between here and Northern British Columbia.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at roxannes@yukon-news.com