Faro mine’s remediation mess

The Yukon's Kaska nations say the territorial government is mismanaging one of the biggest projects it has ever tackled. The Faro mine was not only the biggest lead-zinc mine in the Yukon...

The Yukon’s Kaska nations say the territorial government is mismanaging one of the biggest projects it has ever tackled.

The Faro mine was not only the biggest lead-zinc mine in the Yukon, Canada and even the world at one point, it also became one of the biggest environmental disasters.

When the mine finally closed in 1998, it had been processing lead and zinc ore for more than three decades.

With devolution, managing the cleanup of the mine became the responsibility of the Yukon government, while Ottawa is still obligated to pay the bills.

But the Kaska are demanding that arrangement be reversed.

The Ross River Dena Council and the Liard First Nation, which make up the Yukon’s Kaska, want the federal government to take back management of the cleanup in hopes they will be better accommodated and have more authority over the project.

“Both the territory and Canada say that we’re equal partners but they come up with models where we’re just rubber stamps,” said Alex Morrison, general manager of the Liard First Nation Development Corporation. “Not to have any First Nation involvement in a project like this is ludicrous.”

Things have gotten worse since the territory took over in 2009, said Morrison.

Not only are the First Nations devoid of any actual authority over the project, but local companies are being pushed aside for those Outside, he claimed.

Even the territory’s own numbers show a decrease in Yukon involvement.

In 2010, Pelly Construction was awarded a $13-million contract, which meant 571 members of the affected First Nations were employed, $2 million in subcontracts were awarded locally and more than $250,000 was put toward local training, according to Stephen Mead, director of the remediation project with the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

But in 2011, the main contract, worth $20 million over five years, was awarded to CH2M Hill, which is a Canadian company with 10 offices across the country, including one in Whitehorse.

And in February 2012, Tli Cho Engineering and Environmental Services from Yellowknife was awarded a three-year, $30.1-million contract for the maintenance and care of the site.

CH2M Hill is a world leader in this type of work, according to the department.

Meaning the territory feels they went with the best guys, not necessarily the local guys.

But Morrison sees this project as a way to make the best guys and the local guys the same thing.

“It will be a thirty-year project and they plan on spending $200 to $300 million a year,” said Morrison. “It’s going to be a billion-dollar project.”

The point that should not be taken for granted is that this mine was put in at the expense of the First Nations, said chief of the Ross River Dena Council, Jack Caesar.

“People had to move out of there for the mine to happen,” he said. “All through that area was totally used by the First Nations. Game was plentiful and they harvested it for summer and winter needs, along with the salmon that come up the river there. It was year-round activities, like trapping, and it was used to its fullest by the families.”

The lead-zinc deposit was originally discovered by Ross River Dena Council members and when the mine was in production, very few of the First Nations’ citizens were trained or employed, and the aboriginal government saw very little benefit from the mine throughout its entire life from the early 1960s until it closed in 1998, said Caesar.

All the while, that land could no longer be used for traditional hunting, trapping and fishing for the First Nation.

Even today it is used, “very little, if at all,” said Caesar.

The federal government and the territory have agreed to work with both Kaska nations as well as the Selkirk First Nation, which is immediately downstream of the mine site.

But in reality, the First Nations have no real say in the project, said Gerry Kerr, the technical adviser for the Ross River Dena Council.

When Canada was managing the project, it committed to aboriginal procurement laws, meaning the affected First Nations received preferential treatment for contracts, jobs and training, he said.

When the territory took over, it didn’t agree to follow those laws, Kerr added.

And the three seats (one per First Nation) at the table given to the Kaska and Selkirk don’t come with any decision-making authority, he said.

Those seats are “just check marks,” said Kerr, explaining that the “community co-ordinators” are mandated to answer to the territory, not to the First Nations.

The Kaska have refused the money for their two seats for this coming year because of that fact, said Kerr.

In turn, the Kaska offered a plan to the territory and Canada in March with a better way to move forward.

Neither government has responded yet, said Kerr.

The only comment the territory offered when asked about the issue was to say that it recognizes the frustration and looks forward to working with the Kaska in the future.

When asked whether Canada would consider taking back management of the project, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said it is working with the territory and the First Nations and wants to continue to do so.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at