Selkirk seeks Minto mine injunction

The Selkirk Renewable Resources Committee is calling for the closure of Minto mine. The committee has asked Mines Minister Archie Lang to "use any means possible to halt production at Minto mine until a wastewater system is...

The Selkirk Renewable Resources Committee is calling for the closure of Minto mine.

The committee has asked Mines Minister Archie Lang to “use any means possible to halt production at Minto mine until a wastewater system is in place that meets or exceeds the standards set out in the original licence,” in a letter, dated Thursday.

If Lang doesn’t do something, the Selkirk First Nation will. It’s seeking legal advice as to how it could shut down the mine with a court injunction, the letter states.

From July to the end of October, the mine, owned by Capstone Mining Corporation, will have dumped more than 1 million cubic metres of untreated water into the Yukon River.

It’s enough wastewater to fill 402 Olympic-size swimming pools, and it’s discharged at a rate of 10 million litres, or four Olympic pools, per day.

Environment Canada, among others, has expressed concern that these discharges could harm juvenile chinook and chum salmon.

Such discharges would usually contravene the mine’s water licence, which requires Minto to treat all wastewater before releasing it.

But Minto received special permission to dump the wastewater under an emergency provision of its licence.

The mine warned that, unless the water was released, a containment wall may suffer a “catastrophic” failure.

Regulators grudgingly agreed, but not without first scolding the mine for abusing the emergency discharge provisions.

Minto had also wanted permission to dump water this coming spring. Regulators said no, ruling that it could hardly be an emergency if the mine were planning for it well in advance.

The discharges must still meet federal mining standards, which are less stringent than those of the mine’s licence.

The mine blames outdated water studies and an unusually heavy spring melt for the discharges. But Jerry Kruse, co-chair of Selkirk’s Renewable Resources Council, says that if the mine can’t abide by its licence conditions, it shouldn’t be open.

“Shut the mine down. Then they don’t need any more water,” he said.

The way Kruse sees it, Minto faces problems that its engineers should have no trouble fixing.

It needs to divert run-off away from its operations and it needs to build a water treatment plant that’s capable of handling the amount of water the mine takes in.

But this all costs money. And why spend extra money when you’re the only operating hard-rock mine in a territory that’s run by a government that’s feverishly supportive of the industry?

“Their goal is the bottom line. If they can get away without doing this stuff and bend the regulations, then that’s money in their pocket,” said Kruse.

“The government is so eager to have a mine in the territory, they’re bending the other way.

“We want them to go back and say, ‘No, these are the rules.’”

Kruse doesn’t have a problem with mining, per se. But he worries that several years of environmental assessments and careful planning have done little to prevent Minto from polluting, because the territory won’t uphold its own rules.

And, in the end, this may give the whole industry a bad name.

“It’s going to make a black mark for anyone else that wants to be mining. Do it right,” said Kruse.

Minto has a water-treatment plant, but it doesn’t always work, and it’s only capable of processing one-tenth of the water currently being disgorged daily by the mine.

The mine’s water-storage pond was filled long ago, so the company is storing water in its mining pit. The pit has a stated capacity of 4.6 million cubic metres, but it was believed to have reached capacity at just 50,000 cubic metres.

Melting permafrost in the pit’s wall caused it to partially collapse, causing the stored water to become further muddied with metals.

Much of the current mess could have been avoided, said Kruse.

Regulators once recommended that the mine dig trenches to divert run-off from its operations and to protect the exposed permafrost in the pit wall with a thermal blanket, said Kruse.

Neither of these precautions were taken.

The current discharges could harm fish, warned Environment Canada in response to Minto’s most recent discharge request.

The mine’s discharges are degrading water quality and “damaging the health of the ecosystem which fish are dependent upon,” the agency stated in its written submission.

The mine’s wastewater enters the Yukon River near known spawning beds of chinook and chum salmon.

Water sampling at the mine’s discharge points show high levels of copper. The metal is particularly dangerous to salmon because it damages the fish’s sense of smell, which is essential for salmon to navigate and find food.

The creek which the mine discharges into has run low and may not adequately dilute the wastewater, exacerbating the problem, Environment Canada stated.

For this, and other reasons, it recommended against granting the mine’s last emergency discharge application.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, meanwhile, called for the construction of a fence to obstruct juvenile salmon from swimming into the mine’s polluted creek.

But the water board concluded it didn’t have the authority to order a fence to be built, and merely recommended the mine go about applying to build one.

That’s not good enough, said Kruse. “We want the water in that creek treated so it doesn’t harm the fish,” he said.

The mine recently submitted a new water management plan to regulators, who have not yet made it public because they’re still awaiting more information from the company, said Rob Yeomans, spokesman for the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board.

Kruse, meanwhile, hopes that concerned citizens will put pressure on Lang to act.

“We want people to stand up and say something,” he said.

“It’s like throwing a rock in a pond. We want to see ripples. We want to see change.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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