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Commentary: Giving mining companies a pass on COVID-19 restrictions means health risks the Yukon can’t afford

By Lewis Rifkind, Katarzyna Nowak, Anne Mease & Sebastian Jones
(File photo)

By Lewis Rifkind, Katarzyna Nowak, Anne Mease & Sebastian Jones

Human interactions with wildlife resulting in COVID-19 have changed the world, but these changes are not reflected in the rules governing mining companies in the Yukon. Elsewhere, mining operations are scaling back and shutting down to help combat the pandemic, but it is largely business as usual in the Yukon.

The Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, days after instituting a public health emergency, ordered that mass gatherings of more than 10 people be banned.

The U.S.-Canada border is closed to non-essential travel. Non-essential travel to the Yukon, and within the Yukon, is recommended against. A 14-day quarantine has been imposed on all travellers arriving in the territory.

These new rules seem not to apply to the mining industry, as mining is considered “essential.” This poses a health risk not only for mine workers but also Yukon communities.

The Victoria Gold chief executive officer announced that the company is hiring and will “keep the Eagle Gold Mine in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic” to “contribute to a strong and healthy Yukon economy.”

We question if gold is essential, and thus by association if mining is “essential” work. We question whether it is critical that more gold be dug up in the Yukon, mostly to be transported across the world to be deposited in the vaults of a bank or turned into new bling.

We should really not be debating if mining belongs in the same category as “healthcare and emergency response” during a global pandemic, as suggested in the Government of Yukon’s announcement on border restrictions.

As of today, and unlike in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, no mining company operating in the Yukon has suspended operations. Communities in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, barricaded roads off to miners out of fear; people in the mining community have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In Elk Valley, B.C., mine workers say they fear reprisal if they speak out about inadequate precautions. Some companies such as the Anglo-Australian BHP of the Ekati diamond mine in the NWT, are sending miners home.

The Yukon’s new rules are in place for our health, and for the sake of not overwhelming our region’s healthcare system. These new rules are being followed by our restaurants, tourism operators, centers for recreation, places of business and houses of worship. Why not the mining sector?

We strongly advocate for mining companies in the Yukon to suspend operations. Exceptions put Yukon communities at risk and undermine our everyday efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus in our territory, our communities, our homes.

One possible solution is for the Yukon’s major mines — the Minto Mine and the Victoria Gold Mine — to go into temporary closure. This would reduce the number of employees on site, and could bring the mining industry into compliance with the advisory on groupings of 10 or fewer people. Temporary closure activities could be done by Yukon employees, thus negating the need for fly-in workers to arrive in the territory. If Outside mining experts need to be brought in, they must be subject to a two-week quarantine prior to mixing with the rest of the workforce.

Smaller operations, such as placer mines and quartz exploration camps, should also consider not operating while the health emergency is on. The minerals are in the ground. They will still be there after the health emergency is over.

We acknowledge the economic ramifications such shut-downs will cause. Yukoners will get laid off. Supplier services from local Yukon companies will be reduced or not required. It will take months, possibly years, to restore the economic benefits that these mining operations provide to the Yukon and Yukoners.

We recognize that these are not easy decisions for those in the political, corporate, and bureaucratic worlds to make. The balance between keeping a semblance of economic activity going while ensuring the well-being of communities is difficult. The pressure the decision makers are under is intense, and we do not envy their responsibilities.

But imagine if one of these mines experiences an outbreak of COVID-19, contributes to pandemic spread and associated illness and loss of life. Imagine if one of these mines, while the health emergency is on, causes an environmental disaster; workers would be required to gather to deal with it, violating COVID-19 safety measures.

Mining activities should stop now, apart from essential care and maintenance to protect the environment.

The authors of this commentary submitted it as individuals and the views expressed do not represent those of their employers.