The Kudz Ze Kayah mine project, located in the centre of Finlayson caribou territory, has been returned to the federal and territorial governments for a final decision. (Courtesy/BMC Minerals)

The Kudz Ze Kayah mine project, located in the centre of Finlayson caribou territory, has been returned to the federal and territorial governments for a final decision. (Courtesy/BMC Minerals)

YESAB deadlocked in tie vote over Kudz Ze Kayah mine project

YESAB’s original approval of the project will be returned to Yukon and federal governments

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) is deadlocked in a tie vote over whether the Kudz Ze Kayah mine project should be approved.

The Kudz Ze Kayah mine is a proposed project 115 kilometres south of Ross River, in the traditional territories of the Kaska, including Liard First Nation and Ross River Dena Council.

Last October, YESAB issued recommendations finding the project would have “significant adverse effects” on the Finlayson caribou herd and the Kaska people, but reasoned that those effects were not beyond mitigation. It recommended that the project could go ahead.

Those recommendations were issued to the mine’s deciding bodies: in this case, the Yukon government, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The Yukon government announced it would approve the project. The federal government, however, said the screening report by YESAB was insufficient.

In a Jan. 22 decision, the Canadian government requested that YESAB compile more information and issue new recommendations reconsidering First Nations interests and water and caribou protections.

Tie vote impedes new recommendations

On March 29, YESAB announced that it was deadlocked in a tie vote and, as a result, would not be able to issue new recommendations on the project. The four members disagreed on whether the adverse effects of the mine could be mitigated.

In the period between January and March, YESAB collected additional information outlining the importance of the proposed area to caribou and the Kaska.

Two of YESAB’s executive committee members said that the new information was not sufficient to issue new recommendations, and the cultural and environmental importance of that area had already been considered.

Laura Cabott, YESAB committee member, said the newly submitted information confirms what YESAB already knew. She conceded that new recommendations could address specific environmental concerns, but that would not be possible in a deadlock.

Cabott added that the Liard First Nation has publicly opposed the project, while the Ross River Dena Council is less clear in its stance and has approved it “at times.”

The remaining two members were convinced otherwise, arguing that the high importance of the area should preclude any development.

YESAB member Lawrence Joe said “the area can be described by science as a nexus of life cycles for the caribou … and warrants the highest level of consideration, precautions, and protection .… It is not possible to mitigate the presence of a mine in an area of critical importance.”

As a result of the deadlock, YESAB has reissued its original recommendations of October 2020 which advises the project to move forward.

Those recommendations will be returned to the Yukon and federal governments, who will make a final decision on the project. They will either approve, reject, or modify the recommendations in their decision.

Experts at impasse on best path forward

A joint release from three Yukon environmental organizations expressed disappointment at YESAB’s tie vote. The organizations highlighted the mine’s location, in the centre of the caribou herd range.

“This herd is in serious trouble, with a rapid decline in population,” the press release states. “We now look to the decision bodies on this project … to act responsibly to protect the Finlayson caribou herd.”

Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, said there’s enough evidence to reasonably halt the project. He called the deadlock “frustrating.”

“There is a grave risk, and to ensure the survival of the (caribou) herd, the project should be rejected,” Rifkind said.

He added that the territorial election and potential federal election make the upcoming decision a “political hot potato.”

When the federal government returned Kudz Ze Kayah to YESAB in January, the Yukon government criticized the decision for adding “unreasonable and unnecessary uncertainty” to the project’s timeline.

The project has undergone four years of review since BMC Minerals took it over in January 2015.

Edward Peart, president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, said YESAB’s deadlock has unnecessarily stalled the project.

“We were hoping that we could get to a point where BMC could have some certainty and clarity moving forward,” Peart said. “We’re just delaying this company who’s putting real benefits to the Yukon — nevermind the financial investment, but the people and community investment that’s been made.”

This project is another instance where the Yukon’s path to development is riddled with uncertainty. Peart described the YESAB process as “world-class leading in its ideology,” but needs to be neatened and streamlined.

“We’ll play by the rules, but we gotta know the rules, and they’ve got to stop changing halfway through the game,” he said.

A representative from BMC Minerals was not available for coment by press time.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at gabrielle.plonka@yukon-news.com

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