Questions remain about magnetite mining plans

The Yukon Water Board is holding a public hearing next week over Eagle Industrial Minerals' plan to mine magnetite out of the iron-rich tailings at the old Whitehorse Copper mine site.

The Yukon Water Board is holding a public hearing next week over Eagle Industrial Minerals’ plan to mine magnetite out of the iron-rich tailings at the old Whitehorse Copper mine site.

The Yukon Socio-economic Environmental Assessment Board has already given the project a green light. All the company needs now is a water licence to go forward.

The company plans to scoop up the tailings and mix them with water to create a slurry. The mixture will then be poured into giant drums lined with magnets to draw out the magnetite.

It will take about 23,000 cubic metres of water a day to process the tailings. That’s 23 million litres, or enough water to fill nine Olympic swimming pools.

While most of that water will be recycled, the company will still need to draw about 220 cubic metres of water a day from either the Little Chief Pit Lake on site or a well.

Water is one of the issues that has people who live in the area concerned.

While the 10 million tonnes of tailings on site are about 20 per cent magnetite, they’re also full of toxic metals like selenium, molybdenum, arsenic, uranium and copper.

Dr. Marc Pronovost, like many of the people who live in the country residential subdivisions that surround the old mine site, draws his water from a well downhill from the site.

Metal leaching into ground water was flagged by YESAB as a potential concern that could arise.

“As a physician I’m very concerned,” wrote Dr. Pronovost in a letter to the water board.

“A proper health-impact study has not been made and I believe that is essential for the safety of local residents,” he said.

The former copper mine located eight kilometres south of downtown Whitehorse started operations in 1967.

In the 1970s the City of Whitehorse expanded its boundaries to include the mine, in part so it could tap into revenue from the operation.

The mine shut down in 1982 when commodity prices slumped.

Over the last three decades, rural subdivisions have sprung up around the former mine.

Given that water-quality surveys of wells downhill from the mine have never found any contamination from the tailings, Chuck Eaton, the president of Eagle Industrial Minerals Corp., doesn’t anticipate that his company’s plans will have any impact on ground-water quality.

“What we’re going to do is clean up all the water in the pit lake so it meets or exceeds actually drinking water standards, so right off the bat we’re going to have a much cleaner environmental situation than exists there currently,” he said.

The company plans to maintain that water quality throughout the six to seven years it will be processing those tailings.

“We’re going to make sure that no water escapes the site unless it meets drinking water standards, which is much cleaner than the water that is currently there,” said Eaton.

There is always a chance that contaminated water could escape from the site, but the company has a contingency plan for that as well.

This in-situ groundwater clean-up plan would involve drilling wells to pump out contaminated water and pump in an organic carbon solution to treat water in the ground.

A similar treatment method is used to treat ground water at a contaminated site in California.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the project.

“It’s a mess, but it’s a stable mess,” said Lewis Rifkind, the mining co-ordinator for the Yukon Conservation Society.

Despite assurances from the company, the conservation society still has questions about the potential environmental impact of disturbing the site, questions it hopes to get answers to at the hearings next week.

The Yukon government has also put forward a number of technical questions to the company.

It’s really a balancing act, said Rifkind.

“Every time you go back into a mine site, there’s potential to make things worse, but if you do it right, you might even make things better,” he said.

When it’s finished mining the tailings, the company has plans to clean up the site by capping the remaining tailings with a layer of waste rock, which would be a good thing, said Rifkind.

“If they get a handle on the dust issue, people are going to be very happy about that, he said.

If the company gets final approval from the water board, the hope is to get things up and running by this summer, said Eaton.

It will be the only mine within city limits.

Mining a historic mine site from an environmental perspective is better than starting one from scratch, said Rifkind.

“Essentially the surface ecosystem is nonexistent there, it’s been trashed, so if you’re going to mine anywhere, it’s a good place to mine,” he said.

The hearings start Jan. 16 at 9 a.m. at the High Country Inn and run for three days.

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com