Changes to Canada’s placer mining regulations have some family operations frightened.
Starting next year, gold miners will be required to cut the amount of sediment in the water sent back into Yukon streams by half.
This and a host of other necessary changes to operations will increase the planning and work necessary to run a placer mining operation.
More importantly, it will also raise costs.
“Some of those lifestyle miners won’t make it,” said Dawson placer miner Mike McDougall.
The new regulations are tough for the already beleaguered industry.
Fuel prices have risen quickly, not allowing the miners a chance to enjoy the high price of gold, said McDougall.
“I just put more money into my fuel tank than what it cost me for my first bulldozer.”
Other challenges include a lack of new mining sites.
“I think that there’s maybe eight to 10 years of mining left at the current level if we can’t do anymore exploration,” he said.
“We have to be more business minded. We have to know when you’re going to make money and when you’re going to lose it, and plan for the future.”
However, McDougall sees a gold lining on the dark cloud.
“I don’t think it’s so bad,” he said in Whitehorse this week.
“Even though applying for licences looks a bit more complicated now, what I have to do to conform to the terms and conditions isn’t going to be overly onerous.
“And I’ve been meeting the sediment-discharge criteria since 1993.”
The new sediment criteria is the biggest concern for miners.
“Because that’s what we do,” he said.
“Sediment isn’t a byproduct of placer mining, it is our product.”
Placer miners are currently allowed to pump water that has up to five millilitres of sediment per litre back into the streams.
Next year, that limit will be cut in half, to 2.5 ml/L.
The effect will then be monitored downstream and the limit could potentially be pulled down to 2.0 ml/L.
Concerns over the new regulations are unfounded, said McDougall.
“Much of the industry is not aware of what their settling ponds are capable of.”
It’s fairly simple technology.
The thick effluent is pumped into the ponds where sediment sinks to the bottom.
Fresh water is then pumped out from the top.
McDougall already works to a 2.0 ml/L sediment limit, he said.
“But I can regularly meet 0.5 (ml/L).”
In order to get this cleaner water, ponds need to be wider and longer.
Some miners do have logistical constraints, such as those working in narrow valleys, McDougall added.
And it’s going to cost a lot more money.
On December 16, 2002 the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced that he would phase out the Yukon Placer Authorization.
McDougall likened the announcement to the Kennedy assassination, in that every placer miner can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news.
Since the 1970s, Yukon placer miners had been regulated by the Yukon Placer Authorization.
This was created to amalgamate the requests of the many regulating bodies, both territorial and federal, that had an interest in placer mining.
There were also special considerations made for placer mining.
“Where the river hits the road with us is the fish act, which says that you can’t substantially alter the flow of water,” said McDougall.
“But this is common practice in placer mining.”
A compromise was reached and everything worked out for nearly 30 years — until December 16, 2002, known among miners as Black Friday.
“The then minister of Fisheries and Oceans said, ‘I can’t renew this. I can’t approve this,’” said McDougall.
“‘This doesn’t fit with the law of the land, so you guys have to go back and do something different.’”
But conforming to the federal rules would have put more than 50 per cent of the $40-million industry out of business.
Following a strong public reaction against the minister’s decision, the Yukon government, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Council of Yukon First Nations, signed a new agreement.
This agreement required a new regime for regulating placer mining.
It endeavoured to conserve and protect fish and fish habit to support fisheries while creating a sustainable placer mining industry in the Yukon.
The new regime began in 2007.
The biggest problem is not the water discharged from settling ponds, said McDougall.
It’s floods and runoff from spoil piles that cause the most environmental damage.
“That’s an area that we have to improve upon,” he said.
“And we’ll improve that by simple techniques such as contouring the tailings, and more stringent controls and how you finish your spoil piles, how you reestablish the vegetation.”
These controls will be implemented when miners renew their water licences over the next three to 10 years.
“That gives you plenty of time to evolve into this new regime,” he said.
K1 Mining, McDougall’s family mine, will be able to work with these new regulations.
And, like many other placer mining operations in the Yukon, K1 really is a family business.
“I met Kim, my wife, on the creek,” he said.
“The same creek that we’re on now.”
McDougall moved to the Yukon from Toronto, following his father who decided to get into mining in the ‘70s.
Just coming up to help for the summer, McDougall fell in love with the work, the place and his future wife.
“It’s a great lifestyle but a lot of work,” he said.
“And if you worked hard over the summer you had enough money, if you saved properly, to make it through the winter.”
McDougall was in town this week for a short visit, to pick up his family and head back to Dawson.
His nine-year-old daughter Hannah, the next generation of family placer miners, sat quietly at the table as he did the interview.
McDougall is unsure whether she or her sister will one day take over the family’s claim.
“You know what, I hope that they can,” he said.
“But I’m not certain that they’ll want to.”
In some ways there are parallels to the family farm in Saskatchewan — you used to be able to make a living off of one acre of land now you need huge operations.
“If the greater society of Canada says they don’t want any environmental impacts, then that’s it for us,” he continued.
“Because we have impacts — they’re visual; they’re temporary but they’re impacts.”