Selwyn mine road expansion will get environmental assessment

A proposed expansion to Selwyn Chihong Mining's access road to a lead-zinc development in Yukon's Selwyn Mountains will undergo an environmental assessment.

A proposed expansion to Selwyn Chihong Mining’s access road to a lead-zinc development in Yukon’s Selwyn Mountains will undergo an environmental assessment.

Parks Canada issued a letter to the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board on July 10 requesting the assessment.

The existing access road is a 79-kilometre, single-lane, gravel road that begins at the Nahanni Range Road near the old townsite of Tungsten and runs northwest through parts of Nahanni and Naats’ihch’oh national park reserves before arriving at the mine site on the border of Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

The upgrade would see the road expanded to a two-lane access road capable of supporting regular traffic and heavy equipment.

Parks Canada received an application from the mining company for a land use permit and water licence for the road upgrade on July 3.

After reviewing the application, the agency decided the expansion “might have significant adverse impacts to the environment,” wrote Jonathan Tsetso, acting superintendent of Nahanni National Park Reserve, in the letter to the review board.

Those adverse impacts include threats to caribou, bears, fish, and other wildlife, introduction of invasive plants, and damage to cultural and archaeological resources.

Tsetso also wrote that the “rugged terrain” could lead to “a higher potential for spills and accidents near fish-bearing streams.”

The access road was originally built in 1978-79 to reach mineral deposits west of Howard’s Pass in the Selwyn Mountains, but fell into disuse in the 1980s. After Selwyn Chihong took over exploration in the area in 2013, the company began to repair the road, and replaced eight bridges last year.

But Doug Reeve, Selwyn Chihong’s manager of permitting, said the road needs an expansion if the mine is to be developed.

“It’s fine for getting pick-ups through… but if we have a lot of heavy regular equipment, trucks won’t be able to get past each other on the road,” he said.

Reeve estimated that if the mine is built, the road will need to support 100 loaded trucks running 24 hours a day.

Currently, Reeve said, the road is used by the mining company and sometimes by local hunters and fishers, but only sporadically.

“Right now, you could say the traffic is almost none,” he said. “Any increase… is going to be quite a bit more than what’s there.”

Kris Brekke, executive director of the Northwest Territories chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said he’s most concerned about impacts on mountain caribou in the region. He said there are two herds that overwinter in and around Nahanni National Park and spend their mating seasons in the area around the road.

“I don’t think that currently the management considerations are in place to allow a road to be opened,” he said.

Chief Mike Matou of the Nahanni Butte Dene Band also worries about the effects traffic and noise pollution might have on caribou migrations. He said he’d like to see the company reduce traffic on the road during key times of the year.

He’s also concerned about sediment from the road building up in waterways.

“It might cloud up the creeks for the fish, and it might be obstructing their swimming,” he said.

Still, he said if those concerns are addressed, the project could be beneficial for his band. He said two people in the 116-member community were employed on the bridge-building project last year.

Reeve said Selwyn Chihong has been consulting with Nahanni Butte and other communities in the Sahtu and Dehcho regions of the Northwest Territories about the expansion, and that “they’re generally quite supportive.”

Beyond creating jobs, the project could also open up access to the national park reserves. Typically, visitors fly in to Nahanni and Naats’ihch’oh, but this road could start to change that. Reeve said he’s heard Parks Canada is pleased with that possibility.

“Getting people into a park that’s quite remote, they’re happy with it,” he said.

Parks Canada did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Selwyn Chihong expects to spend $35 to $45 million on the road expansion, and Reeve said the company will also cover all maintenance costs. Construction is expected to begin in the summer of 2017 and finish by the fall of 2018.

There was initially some uncertainty as to whether the project would require an environmental assessment, because the road was built before the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act was drafted. But Reeve said the company has allotted time for the assessment.

Contact Maura Forrest at