Western Copper plots next move

Western Copper Corporation is making the best of a bad situation, following the Yukon Supreme Court ruling that put the company's plans to build a mine near Carmacks on ice.

Western Copper Corporation is making the best of a bad situation, following the Yukon Supreme Court ruling that put the company’s plans to build a mine near Carmacks on ice.

“We’re disappointed,” said Paul West-Sells, the company’s president and chief operating officer. But the bright side to the setback is the precedent-making decision offers “some clarity” on the water board’s clout, he said.

Western Copper argued in court that the water board couldn’t outright deny it a licence, because the Carmacks project had already been approved by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.

Justice Ronald Veale disagreed. On Friday, he upheld the water board’s independence. To do otherwise “would completely eviscerate the licensing role of the water board,” he wrote.

Western Copper’s next move will be to sit down with regulators to assess what work will be needed to obtain a water licence, said West-Sells. The company may appeal the court decision, he said.

Conservationists are cheering the court decision. “It’s great news for the environment,” said Lewis Rifkind with the Yukon Conservation Society.

“The water board has said, ‘No, the Yukon won’t be a guinea pig for an unproven technology.’”

The company planned to use what’s known as heap-leach technology to strip copper from ore. It involves dousing rock piles with sulphuric acid. Critics say this technology has a spotty track record.

Copper is particularly dangerous to salmon. The metal damages a fish’s sense of smell, which in turn impedes a salmon’s ability to navigate.

Given the water board’s rejection of heap-leach technology, Rifkind wonders whether the company will need to drastically revise its mine plans, which would require it to submit a new application to the assessment board – a big setback.

The water board’s power to halt projects sets it apart from the assessment board, which can only make recommendations that the mining-friendly territorial government overrules as it sees fit.

Take the case of a placer mining project near Dawson City’s Midnight Dome subdivision. The assessment board rejected the proposal, but the territory overturned the decision.

The water board’s independence is especially needed now, said Rifkind, as the Yukon appears to be on the cusp of a new mining boom, with three operating hardrock mines, and more on the way.

Victoria Gold wants to have an open-pit gold mine open near Mayo by 2013. Selwyn Resources plans to open an underground mine at its massive lead and zinc deposit near the Northwest Territories border by early 2014.

And there are two big staking booms underway, which many expect to one day produce operating mines: one set off by Shawn Ryan’s discovery of the White Gold District near Dawson City, the other at ATAC Resources’ Rau property near Keno City.

The Carmacks deposit “only represents a small portion of Western Copper’s total assets,” the company noted in a news release. That’s true, but Carmacks was also the company’s most advanced project. It was intended to be a small, start-up mine that would help fuel the company’s exploration work at other sites, such as its massive Casino project.

The case also highlights the importance of mining companies winning the favour of First Nations. Both the Selkirk First Nation and the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation fought the mine proposal, fearing it could contaminate the nearby Yukon River.

“The message is very clear,” Chief Eddie Skookum of Little Salmon/Carmacks said in a release. “Proponents planning to develop projects in our traditional territory must work with us and must be committed to the principle of sustainable development in order to move forward.”

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