The Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation is fighting the Yukon government’s use of waste rock from the Minto copper mine to line Tatchun Creek as part of a bridge replacement project.
A recent study has found that even trace amounts of copper in salmon habitat can affect the fish’s ability to navigate and detect predators.
Reconstruction of the Tatchun Creek bridge, just north of Carmacks on the Klondike Highway, began this spring.
The contractor has already begun putting rock from the mine into the creek as riprap, said Robert Moar, lands director with the First Nation.
“They’ve already started doing that, even though I have objected.”
A geochemist working for the First Nation said the rock had “rusty rock and chunks of low-grade ore,” said Moar.
The geochemist said testing results provided by the government showed substantial pollution, and did not test for all they should. “They shouldn’t be letting this stuff leave the mine site.”
Tatchun Creek is considered a highly productive chinook spawning stream, according to the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee.
Officials are planning for an extremely poor Yukon chinook run this season. It could be the worst on record.
The Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee announced yesterday that it recommends a full closure on chinook fishing this year for the entire Yukon watershed.
That is troubling for the First Nation, said Little Salmon/Carmacks Chief Eric Fairclough.
“Salmon is a pretty big part of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation’s culture and our diet, and of course there is a big concern with the salmon run for a number of years.
“We hope that this gets straightened up soon. We can’t have this carry on. It’s all of our responsibility to ensure that we’re not polluting the water and affecting the salmon. Something needs to be done.”
Jim Tredger, NDP MLA for Mayo-Tatchun, raised the issue in the legislature Monday. He asked the government to explain how it will ensure that the rock put in the creek is safe.
Mines Minister Scott Kent responded that he would ask officials in his department and report back.
In an interview Tuesday, Tredger asked why the government is gambling with the health of the salmon and the creek.
“I know my constituents and First Nations involved are very concerned and would like some answers. Maybe there isn’t something to worry about, but this is pretty risky.”
The Department of Highways and Public Works, however, said there are no concerns with the use of Minto waste rock at the creek.
“We’ve done all the permitting, we’ve done all the assessments and the licensing. We’re fully compliant with our licences. We’ve tested the material and there are no concerns,” said spokesperson Kendra Black.
“Our riprap rock supplier provided written certification that the material provided for this project is suitable for use in the creek.”
Ron Light, general manager of Minto mine, said that the mine tested the construction-grade waste material for metal leaching and provided samples to the government for independent testing.
“We confirmed that they corresponded with the same tests that we run.”
Not all of the waste rock on the mine site is the same – this stuff is “basically waste rock with nothing in it,” said Light.
But by no means did the mine guarantee that the rock would be safe for use in the creek, he said.
That responsibility lies with the department, which holds the water licence and is ultimately responsible for fulfilling its conditions.
The Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation has also reached out to Environment Yukon and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for help on this issue, said Moar.
A spokesperson for Environment Yukon said the department is open to further communications with the First Nation about their concerns, but that the mandate for salmon rests with the federal government.
A spokesperson with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an email the issue is not within its jurisdiction, either.
“Environment Canada is responsible for that section of the Fisheries Act that prohibits the deposit of a deleterious substance into fish-bearing waters,” the spokesperson wrote.
Environment Canada was unable to provide a comment by press time.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at