Faro is branded as Yukon’s Best Kept Secret, but it’s the territory’s dirty little secret that keeps the skeletal town under scrutiny.
Ten years after the Faro lead-zinc mine permanently closed, the site is poised for a cleanup that could cost billions of dollars over five centuries.
Time is running out, too.
During the mine’s operation, lead dust was scattered well beyond its boundaries.
Concerns about severe contamination of aquatic and wildlife ecosystems have made the Faro reclamation an urgent project.
More than 70 million tonnes of ore tailings, a fine, sand-like material, remain in an ecologically sensitive area.
The tailings — piled an average of 14 metres deep, 40 metres in some spots — are held in a massive reservoir, an open sore that oozes orange and pink water into the once-pristine valley.
A group of Faro students who recently toured the site calculated the pit of contaminated material could hold 30 million bison.
A tour bus passes the site, which resembles a sickly grey, frozen lake. It always gives Faro Mayor Michelle Vainio a chill.
“The first time I saw the pit I got a haunting feeling — this is what we’ve done to the environment?” she says.
“It’s a moonscape.”
A tour organized by the parties running the Faro mine complex reclamation took media and government representatives around the minesite Tuesday.
Technical adviser Bill Slater served as tour guide, taking guests to 300-metre-deep mining pits, old mills and piles of waste-rock that blocked out the sun as the school bus drove by.
The reclamation is aimed at easing fears of environmental contamination. It could help restore the formerly lush Rose Creek Valley to something resembling its natural state.
“The tailings, they have to stay here basically forever,” says Slater during a tour stop along the tailings area.
On one side of the road rocks, discoloured bright orange and yellow by the tailings line the outer rim of the pit.
On the other side Rose Creek flows below trees, safe, for now, from contamination.
The committee responsible for the reclamation project is confident its extensive planning process will leave the valley free of the possibility of contamination.
“Whatever we do is to keep water quality from contaminating the downstream aquatic ecosystem,” says Slater.
Rose Creek meets the Pelly River 25 kilometres from the Faro mine.
Distilled from dozens of options, there are essentially five cleanup plans under consideration.
Tailings could be moved, or used to cover waste rock.
Another option is to cover the tailings with soil and divert Faro Creek over top, or cover some tailings with soil while moving the rest.
At the Vangorda-Grum area, located about 14 kilometres down a makeshift road from the Faro minesite, the waste rock could be moved into the Vangorda pit or it could be covered where it sits.
The huge project would require massive amounts of pumping, hauling and shifting.
That will bring jobs to the former mining town, which was built for 2,500 people and is currently home to just under 400.
Some Faro residents feel the mining companies abandoned the town. At its lowest ebb, the town had just 87 residents.
“Everybody went bankrupt and how these companies can do the same is incomprehensible,” says Vainio.
The problem, she says, is that the mining companies that filed for bankruptcy would leave without paying debts and emerge as another company soon after.
The boom-bust economic cycle of mining should serve as a lesson for the reclamation process. The goal is now to ensure long-term jobs to keep people around Faro for a while, says Vainio.
“They could speed up (the reclamation), but it could also be done slowly in a safe manner,” she adds.
For every tonne of ore mined, the mine removed four tonnes of waste rock.
The mine processed between 5,000 and 9,300 tonnes of ore per day for 29 years at the Faro site.
More than 320 million tonnes of waste rock are piled around the mine.
Of the 70 million tonnes of tailings at the mine, 55 million remain in the Rose Creek Valley.
The problem with tailings is acid-rock drainage, a set of chemical reactions that create acid when sulphur-containing rock contacts water and oxygen.
The acid dissolves metal in surrounding rocks and leaches into the ground and surface waters, harming fish and wildlife.
In a valley where sheep, moose and salmon can be found, contamination could harm the region’s entire food chain.
A 2007 study determined lead from the mine could be found up and down the food chain, from caribou to lichen, in a zone running northwest along the Tintina Trench to Pelly Crossing.
Citizens of Ross River Dena Council raised concerns about the risk of eating contaminated plants and animals, however, the study emphasized hunters aren’t at risk.
But the fact a study was necessary is dismal, says the council.
“At one time, prior to the mine, families would go down by raft and camp along the shore and came up the mountains to harvest moose,” says Kathleen Suza, project co-ordinator for Ross River Dena Council.
“There was an abundance of moose and caribou and sheep.”
The council, representing the Kaska Nation, is closely monitoring work on its traditional territory, and has secured a spot as a major partner in the closure project.
It could lead to guaranteed jobs or training opportunities for Ross River citizens, says Suza.
“Once planning has been implemented, that will happen,” she says.
Mining stopped in 1998 when Anvil Range Mining Corporation filed for bankruptcy.
The court-appointed receiver took over operations for care and maintenance of the site.
Ottawa will spend upwards of $900 million over several decades to clean up the Faro mine.
After that, it’s estimated up to $3 million will be spent annually for an estimated 500 years to ensure the damage is contained.
This week, Ottawa announced care and maintenance duties for the minesite would be handled by Denison Environmental Services, of Elliot Lake, Ontario.
The contract will be managed by the Yukon government and paid for by Ottawa. Denison takes over in 2009.
“It’s a very expensive lesson,” said Marg Crombie, director of assessment and abandoned mines for the territorial government, who is also on the tour.
A devolution agreement has shifted mining responsibilities from Ottawa to the Yukon, which means if a Faro happened today the territory would pay the reclamation bill.
But that high-priced education Crombie mentions prompted the territory to develop a policy that requires mining companies to set aside security in the event of closure.
The security could be money in the bank — an upfront payment calculated from initial closure estimates — or some money and then a sliding scale of payment based on benchmarks of development.
This should guarantee the territory will not be on the hook for clean-up costs when a mine closes or goes bankrupt, says Crombie.
“As you’re developing a mine, now you’re doing it with closure in mind,” she says, as the bus passes through the mill yard, rusted scrap metal piled high.
“If you’re not worried about closing, you might take the cheap and quick routes up front. (Mining companies) will want to rethink that.”
A Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board review of the proposed Western Copper mine near Carmacks found the company offered insufficient security and recommended an increase.
Four governments comprise the oversight committee that directs the reclamation project: Ottawa, the Yukon, Selkirk First Nation and the Ross River Dena Council, representing the Kaska Nation.
The committee was to have finalized the reclamation plan this past spring, but delays have pushed the decision deadline to this fall or spring 2009.
“This is a new process with four governments and sometimes things take longer than expected,” says Deborah Pitt, acting senior project manager.
“We went from hundreds of options, to 12 to five combinations of options.”
The committee has been requesting technical information that takes time to obtain, and all this work should create a comprehensive environmental and socio-economic study, adds Pitt.
The final plan will then be submitted to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board for review.
“This will be one of the largest projects to go through the assessment process,” says Pitt.