The Yukon Water Board has rejected Carmacks Copper’s water use application, casting doubt on the future of the mine.
This is good news for the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, which fought the proposal.
“We are not against mining, but we will not accept a mine on our traditional territory that threatens the very existence of our land and water,” said Chief Eddie Skookum.
“We need real mines, not industrial experiments.”
Western Copper Corporation, which owns Carmacks Copper, had proposed using a technique known as acid heap leaching.
The ore would be pushed into piles, some as high as a 30-storey building, and then doused with sulphuric acid.
The acid dissolves the copper in the ore, which can then be collected from below.
However, this technology is unproven.
The water board was concerned about whether the mine could detoxify the heap and manage discharges from the site, according to its 42-page decision document.
There was inadequate evidence that this could be done safely and the board did not support the company’s plan to conduct testing while the mine was in full-scale operation.
As well, the board found the company plan to dump contaminated water from the minesite into a nearby creek didn’t adequately protect the environment.
The standards were in line with Canada’s Metal Mining Effluent Regulations, but still were not sufficient, the board said.
And the standards recommended by the Yukon government were also lacking, it added.
The government’s standards were based on an “incomplete understanding” of Williams Creek and an “incomplete understanding” of Carmacks Copper’s projected discharges, according to the board.
“The applicant has not satisfied the board that waste produced by this undertaking will be treated and disposed of in a manner that is appropriate for the maintenance of proposed water-quality standards in lower Williams Creek,” said the decision document.
“Therefore, it is the decision of the board that the application be denied.”
“We’re just trying to protect our way of life and our traditional way of life, as well as everybody else up and down the Yukon River right out to the Bering Sea,” said Skookum.
“When the company doesn’t talk to us face-to-face, problems arise. It’s nice to see that the land claims process is working.”
The Yukon Conservation Society is also happy with the board’s decision.
“All credit should go to the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation,” said Lewis Rifkind, an associate mining co-ordinator with the conservation society.
“With their lawyers and their experts … it was the sort of thing you’d expect from David Suzuki.”
The water board decision raises a lot of questions, said Rifkind.
“Why did it take the water board to say no to the project?” he asked.
“Why didn’t YESAB catch it? Why didn’t the quartz mining branch catch it?”
The assessment board and the government made recommendations for changes to Carmacks Copper’s proposal.
“By the time it reached the water board, there were all of these unanswered questions,” said Rifkind.
At the end of the water board’s executive summary, the board encouraged the mine to engage and consult with all parties as it moves forward.
But it’s unclear where Carmacks Copper will go from here.
Any changes the mine could make to its proposal to please the water board, such as doing away with the acid heap leaching and choosing a different technique to extract the copper, would be so drastic that it would have to go back through the YESAB and quartz mining licensing processes again, said Rifkind.
“And that’s probably what they’re going to have to do.”
“We know we’re going to do something; we’re just not sure yet what that’s going to be,” said Claire Derome, Western Copper’s vice-president of community affairs.
“We need a little bit of time to come to a decision. There’s a lot to look into.”
The company feels the water board’s findings are inconsistent with previous decisions made by the Yukon government and the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
The decision will affect all projects in the territory, but will not stop progress on Western Copper’s much larger Casino mine, said Derome.
The copper at the Casino mine will be recovered with a milling process, not through acid heap leaching.
There will be a heap leach component to the project, but that will only be used to extract gold deposits using cyanide, which is a technique that has previously been used in the territory.
The mine already has a permit to begin construction and, if the water board had decided to approve their application, could have begun at any time.
“We could start construction tomorrow,” said Derome.
“But without a water licence that would be a bit stupid.”
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