NDP slams government on Campbell Highway spending

The Yukon NDP is raising questions about the amount of government money invested in upgrades to the Robert Campbell Highway over the last several years.

The Yukon NDP is raising questions about the amount of government money invested in upgrades to the Robert Campbell Highway over the last several years.

The opposition party says the government has poured millions of dollars into highway improvements largely to help with the development of Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine mine, which closed in January.

“Let’s stop pretending that the decision to improve the highway was made for any other reason than supporting Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine operations,” NDP Leader Liz Hanson said in the legislative assembly on Monday. She argued that taxpayer dollars have supported a failed mine whose legacy is “zero dollars in royalties, millions in unpaid bills to Yukon businesses and the environmental liabilities left behind.”

To prove her case, Hanson pointed to a report obtained by the NDP through an access-to-information request that appears to have been published around 2005.

The report outlines the work needed on the Campbell Highway specifically to allow for the development of the Wolverine mine. It found that 155 kilometres of the highway between Watson Lake and the mine access road at kilometre 185 needed upgrading, at a cost of nearly $46 million.

“All of the expenditures… are made necessary by the development of a single mining project,” it reads. “Before the Yukon government commits to make a major investment in highway improvements there must be a clear commitment for the development of the mine.”

Wolverine achieved commercial production in 2012, with an estimated mine life of nearly 10 years. It shuttered less than three years later.

Between 2005 and 2014, the Yukon government spent $25.6 million on upgrades to the Robert Campbell Highway. The most recent budget estimates that an additional $8.8 million was spent during the 2014-15 fiscal year, and another $9.7 million will be spent during this fiscal year.

The 2014-15 budget also announced that $32 million from the federal Building Canada fund had been spent on the highway.

That amounts to a possible total investment of $76 million in the last decade. That figure roughly lines up with a letter written by Highways and Public Works Minister Scott Kent in April, which stated that “the government has budgeted more than $70 million for reconstruction work” on the highway since 2002.

At the time, Kent argued it was misleading to suggest that all of that investment was for the benefit of Yukon Zinc, and that upgrades had been made all along the Robert Campbell Highway between Carmacks and Watson Lake, not just on the southern portion to the Wolverine access road.

In fact, 2005-06 is the only fiscal year in the past decade when the budget address explicitly referenced upgrades to the stretch of highway between Carmacks and Faro. In most years since then, all specific references were to the South Campbell Highway. In several years, upgrades were targeted to the section of road between kilometres 10 and 190, right around the Wolverine turnoff.

The question, then, is whether or not the investment is justified, given that the mine failed so quickly.

In the legislative assembly this week, Kent argued that the improvements will help the region’s tourism industry and that they have provided much-needed jobs. He also said the upgrades will pave the way for future mines in the area.

“The existing road would potentially have been a safety concern, so we want to make sure that anyone using that road is safe and has confidence in that road… when there’s industrial traffic on there,” he said.

Kent referred specifically to Selwyn and Kudz Ze Kayah as projects that will make use of that road if they go into production.

The Selwyn site can be accessed via the Nahanni Range Road, which splits from the Campbell Highway south of the Wolverine access road. The company has proposed a partnership agreement with the Kaska Nation for a lead-zinc mine that will be voted on in February 2016.

Kudz Ze Kayah is a proposed lead-zinc mine just north of Wolverine.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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