Photo by Whitehorse Star
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Some environmental groups are expressing concerns about the Yukon Resource Gateway Project following a commitment of more than $360 million in federal and territorial funding.
The project will see improved road access in the Dawson Range, located between Carmacks and Dawson City, and the Nahanni Range Road in southeast Yukon, both mineral-rich areas in the territory.
And while members of the mining industry and government are applauding the funding announcement, there are concerns about the lack of information on environmental impacts.
“We’re not supportive of these projects until we get more information,” Lewis Rifkind, a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, told the Star last week.
“We’re opening up vast swaths of the Yukon to environmental fragmentation.”
He worries about how the infrastructure project might affect woodland caribou. He said an extreme example of this is logging and oil and gas roads in Alberta, where the woodland caribou population has been reduced to around 7,000.
The proposed access road to the Casino mine goes through the heart of the Klaza caribou grounds, and has an estimated use of 126 heavy duty trucks per day.
The potential impact on the caribou herd, along with a controversial tailings dam, was why the executive committee of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) sent the mine proposal up to a full panel review.
It was the first time in YESAB’s 10-year history that a project had been sent to the board’s highest level of review.
Rifkind is also concerned about the liability of mining companies for environmental control of day to day operations.
And he questions if these companies go bankrupt, who would be held responsible for environmental cleanup.
The Faro lead-zinc mine was abandoned by its bankrupt owners in 1998. The property is one of Canada’s largest contaminated sites.
And the former Mount Nansen gold and silver mine, near Carmacks, was abandoned by BYG Natural Resources Inc. in 1999 after it was unable to meet the requirements of its water licence.
The federal government is financially liable for both of these cleanups. But the territory is responsible for any mining damage since 2003 with the signing of the Yukon’s Devolution Transfer Agreement.
As well, Rifkind questions the impartiality of the government when it comes to approving mining proposals in the gateway project’s proposed regions.
Casino Mining Corp.’s open-pit mine project, Goldcorp Inc.’s Coffee Gold project, and Selwyn Chihong’s lead-zinc mine have yet to be approved.
“When you start seeing so much taxpayer dollars being pumped into a project like this, how impartial is the government going to be?” Rifkind asked.
The Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is also wary of the potential environmental impacts the project poses.
“We were a little taken aback because it’s well known that roads have significant environmental impacts that haven’t yet been considered,” Joanna Jack, the conservation programs and outreach co-ordinator, told the Star.
She noted this includes increased hunting pressures in areas previously protected by remoteness. She also said that these undisturbed habitats provide a multitude of uncounted benefits, including food security.
But Richard Mostyn, the minister of Highways and Public Works, said the project is still in its early stages, and before any construction begins, it will go through the proper assessments.
“This is an enormous project; it’s one of the largest highway projects in recent memory and it’s going to take an awful lot of work to execute,” he said in an interview with the Star.
This includes agreements with First Nations whose traditional territories will be affected.
“We’ve had some great conversations with the First Nations that led us to this point, the general support on this project,” said Ranj Pillai, the minister of Energy, Mines and Resources.
He added that mining project proponents also have relationships with First Nations as part of the approval process.
The Yukon Resource Gateway Project will see more than 650 kilometers of road upgraded, as well as the building or replacement of several bridges, culverts and stream crossings.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the funding commitment with MP Larry Bagnell and Premier Sandy Silver on Sept. 2, during the second day of his Yukon trip.
Ottawa has said it will provide up to $247.3 million of the funding, with the Yukon accounting for $112.8 million. Industry has also promised to contribute $108 million to the project.
Mostyn said there is an eight-year rollout for the funding but could not confirm when construction is expected to begin.
He said the funding will be based on a recovery model, government funding won’t flow until industry pays for their portion. And the roads to mines won’t be built until these projects are approved.
Mostyn also refuted the claim that the funding commitment will affect government’s approval decisions, noting that YESAB is an independent arm’s-length body.
“Ottawa’s decision is a tremendous boom to the territory,” he said. “This is work that has to get done. And it frees up resources to do other things.”
Pillai added, “This just adds another feather to our cap as we start to tell the Yukon story to investors.”
The Yukon Chamber of Mines has also praised the funding decision, calling it a “visionary announcement” that is the “first step towards unlocking Yukon’s mineral wealth.”
And the Yukon Chamber of Commerce says it will create opportunities for territorial companies and workers.
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