Tagish Lake Gold Corp. is dialing back its exploration plans in the Wheaton Valley, south of Whitehorse.
It’s an unusual turn of events, as the company just received tentative approval to continue proving up its Mount Skukum area claims where gold has been mined historically.
“The company feels the extra time will allow for further study of the issues, the environmental conditions and effects, and clearing some of the fears among stakeholders and groups who may need more factual information,” wrote Jason Nickel, vice-president of engineering, in a submission to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
On Tuesday, assessors recommended the company receive another five-year exploration permit – with a long list of 54 conditions. The territorial government now has a month to accept, reject or modify the recommendation.
The company’s previous land-use permit for exploration expired in October.
Both the Carcross/Tagish First Nations and the Kwanlin Dun First Nation expressed concerns to the assessment board about the company’s work to date.
Little information has been shared with the First Nations about the company’s efforts to monitor wildlife, both First Nations wrote in their submissions.
No wildlife monitor had been hired as had been required under an agreement with local First Nations. The company said the position – which would help First Nations keep tabs on the project’s impact – remains empty because the company has yet to find a suitable candidate.
“This leaves a serious gap in the critical two-way communications that need to take place on a regular basis,” wrote Albert James, co-chair of the Carcross/Tagish Renewable Resources Council.
“At the one and only meeting with representatives of Tagish Lake Gold, council members came away with none of their questions answered and feeling very skeptical of (the company’s) ability to appropriately manage wildlife issues,” said James.
The council is particularly concerned about Dall sheep near the site. They’ve been seen using waste rock near old mine adits as mineral licks. And these sheep may have become habituated to the racket created by heavy machinery, the council warned.
“No one has yet been able to determine the long-term effects of the animals licking mine effluent or becoming desensitized to loud noises,” wrote James.
“Hunters on ATVs make loud noises, too. If loud machinery noise no longer serves to alert animals of impending danger, what are their chances against overzealous hunters?”
The Carcross/Tagish First Nations are also concerned with new roads being cut without the First Nation first being informed. More roads provide more opportunities for hunters, which may take a toll on local big-game populations.
In response, the company noted it has pared back its plans to build roads to 10 kilometres from 40 kilometres. And thanks to a half-century of exploration in the area, there’s already a criss-crossing network of more than 150 kilometres of roads and trails near the site.
The company has put a gate up to control access to roads, but it “cannot be held responsible for detrimental effects to wildlife and habitat due to public negligence,” the company asserted.
“Issues such as irresponsible ATV/snowmobile use and overharvesting of game animals have persisted for some time in this area.”
Most mineral exploration outfits like to brag about how quickly they foresee themselves extracting shiny metal from the ground. But not Tagish Lake Gold.
In its response to critics, the company takes pains to note its project “represents exploration and not active mining” and that “the company has no current plans to apply for a mining permit.”
The company had intended to spend $16.5 million in 2012 to drill 24,000 metres from the surface and another 36,000 metres underground. It also planned to carry out a feasibility study.
It’s not clear how much drilling it will now do in 2012 if it receives its exploration permit.
But it says drilling in 2012 would be limited to surface work with no further work underground currently being contemplated.
The company wouldn’t say whether this is, in part, due to technical concerns with wet conditions underground that were noted in a Nov. 14 news release.
Company officials also declined to say whether these changes in plans are spurred, in part, by an ongoing investigation by the Yukon Workers’ Compensation, Health and Safety Board that followed the company’s decision to stop work underground.
Neither the company nor the compensation board will speak about the ongoing investigation, which started in late July and is now nearly complete.
Kurt Dieckmann, director of occupational safety, said he expects the final report to be publicly released by the end of February.
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