Editor’s note: This is the full version of an abridged story in our print edition.
A proposed Carmacks copper mine will have a serious environmental impact, according to the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board must make its decision on the mining proposal sometime in mid-July.
This is the first major mining project the assessment board has been asked to review since it was formed.
“We’re kind of worried that this is a time of year when its going to catch most of the public asleep and the First Nations will all be at fish camp,” said Robert Moar, an engineer working for the First Nation.
“And we’ve been having a rough experience with the YESAA process. There’s been some obvious engineering deficiencies and it seems kind of biased.”
The major concern is over how the site will be cleaned up when the mining is finished.
“All they want to do is put down enough soil to throw grass seed on,” said Moar.
“And what they need to do — what they teach you to do at school if you take mining engineering — is cap the thing with clay, get trees on it and reduce the slope so that it’s stable.”
“Our expert is saying it’s going to release a lot of copper.”
Western Copper Corporation has proposed an open-pit mine on Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation traditional territory.
The copper will be extracted using a relatively quick and inexpensive technique known as acid heap leaching.
Millions of tons of crushed ore will be piled as 30 storeys high and doused with sulphuric acid.
The acid dissolves the copper, which is then collected from the bottom of the heap.
What’s left behind is an enourmous pile of acid-laced ore.
Western Copper is proposing to rinse the heaps with water and an alkali treatment to neutralize the acid.
The company will pump molasses through the heap. This bonds with the metal molecules to make them relatively harmless, said Moar.
However as the sugar biodegrades, these hard metals will be released back into the ground.
“So it gets their pollution numbers down really fast for a few years and then they get their (environmental) bond back and they’re gone,” said Moar.
“It’s a real quick fix and government tends to go along with that thing because they just want to get through to their next election.”
The mining site is located on William’s Creek, which runs straight into the Yukon River nine kilometres away.
If heavy metals like copper are released into the river, it could have dire consequences for fish, especially salmon.
If you have an Olympic-sized swimming pool one drop of copper solution would equal one part per billion, Moar explained.
Just five drops in the pool would cause a fish to lose its sense of smell.
If you added five more drops the copper would permanently burn the scent receptors in the salmon’s nose — making it impossible for the fish to sense danger, food or even migrate.
A teaspoon of the stuff would cause any fish in the pool to be belly-up dead, said Moar.
“Humans need some copper, but it’s incredibly poisonous to fish.”
There have been discrepancies between what Western Copper’s experts have said and what the assessment board has found through its own research.
At the end of February, the assessment board requested additional information from the Vancouver-based mining company.
It had found that the cleanup could take twice as long and cost the company three times as much as it laid out in the proposal.
After the assessment board makes its recommendation, the proposal will go to the Yukon Party government for approval.
According the company website, Western Copper could have the mine up and running within two weeks of approval.
“It’s not going to kill the company to do this right,” said Moar.
“They’ve never done this before and they’re fighting anything that could cost a million or so bucks extra — even something that could cost them $100,000 more.
“The bottom line is profit.”