Yukon board agrees to hold hearing on contaminated mine site

Public hearing for mining remediation dispute to be held this fall

The Yukon Water Board plans to hold a public hearing later this fall regarding a First Nation’s claims that remediation work at a former contaminated mine is making things worse – though both parties hope to reach a solution before then.

The former Mount Nansen mine site is located on the traditional territory of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation (LSCFN) near the community of Carmacks, 100 km north of Whitehorse.

The site was abandoned by its owners, BYG Natural Resources, in 1999 and was called an “environmental disaster” and an “embarrassment to Canada” by the territorial court after BYG racked up more than $300,000 in environmental fines.

The site is now under the care of the Mount Nansen Remediation Ltd. Partnership (MNRLP), a joint venture between Ensero Solutions and JDS Energy and Mining, which purchased legal rights to the site in 2019.

The company has been performing care, maintenance and remediation work on behalf of the federal government since 2021.

Last year, LSCFN submitted an application to the Yukon Water Board, an independent body under the Waters Act, requesting amendments to MNRLP’s water licence, as well as a public hearing and compensation for loss and damages.

According to the First Nation’s extensive filing, MNRLP consistently breaches its water licence, consequently making things worse at the site and preventing LSCFN citizens from exercising their Aboriginal and treaty rights, such as hunting and fishing, under its Final Agreement.

“There are known to be over two dozen contaminants of concern at and around the Site, but the sole water treatment plant is only treating for five of them,” the application states.

“LSCFN Citizens seek to drink clean water on their Settlement Lands and harvest healthy plants and animals in their Traditional Territory, as guaranteed by the Final Agreement.”

Aerial view of the former Mount Nansen mine site, which is now being remediated by MNRLP. Photo: Jim Harrington

Board agrees with First Nation

Last month, the board released a decision document agreeing with LSCFN that a public hearing would be in the public interest.

“LSCFN citizens have front row seats to the adverse effects created by the unremediated mine site, given the location of the mine site within their traditional territory. They have a strong interest in understanding and ensuring how the Mt Nansen mine site is being cared for and maintained while the remediation plan is being developed” the document states.

“All citizens of Yukon have a strong interest in seeing mine sites cared for, maintained and ultimately remediated for future lands uses. The Board is satisfied in this case that it appears to be in the public interest to hold a public hearing.”

The hearing is anticipated to take place in November.

Chief Nicole Tom declined an in-person interview with APTN News, issuing a statement instead.

“LSCFN is still in negotiations with (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada)  in regards to the water use licence dispute, to come to an agreement outside of the water board process.  The hearing date will remain the same until a potential agreement is reached,” she said.

Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation Chief Nicole Tom. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN News

Remediation company wants to ‘get it right’

But Jim Harrington, CEO of Ensero Solutions, said MNRLP is fully committed to meeting the requirements of its water licence and has been doing so from the start.

Harrington said MNRLP has met with representatives from LSCFN and CIRNAC in order to incorporate their input into its remediation plan.

He said work is underway to address LSCFN’s concerns. The hope, he said, is for the dispute to be resolved before a hearing takes place.

However, he noted MNRLP intends to participate if the hearing goes forward.

“At the end of the day, our company wants to be seen as a project proponent that gets this site cleaned up,” he told APTN. “We’re going to keep working at it with them until we get it right.”

Harrington said MNRLP is taking LSCFN’s application seriously and is working to address LSCFN’s concerns, irrespective of the hearing.

He said the company has drilled more than 20 groundwater wells and is working to increase capacity of the site’s water treatment plant.

MNRLP recently received an amendment to its licence on an emergency basis to increase the plant’s capacity as water in the site’s tailings facility was not being drawn down. He said a new water treatment plant, which is almost in operation, will help provide additional protection.

Harrington noted MNRLP inherited a water licence that was already in place before it took over operations.

He said some issues with the site are likely related to climate change, such as changes to permafrost. MNRLP is currently conducting studies to better understand the issue.

“In the process toward leading to the sale when our company took over…some of those issues may have needed to have additional thought,” he said.

A spokesperson for CIRNAC said in a statement it, likewise, doesn’t oppose LSCFN’s request for a hearing and plans to participate.

“(CIRNAC) maintains an oversight role through the duration of the remediation project. This includes reviewing and accepting project deliverables and providing funding as per the agreement,” they said. “We remain open to further discussions with the First Nation on any other concerns that they have on the project.”

Conservation society stands behind First Nation

Kayla Brehon, a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), said the organization isn’t aware of any other public hearings in the territory where a First Nation has requested a review by the water board.

She said MNRLP’s operations “could be better.”

“They could be using higher standards. They could be implementing a faster timeline. And ultimately, we could be protecting the environment in a more timely manner,” she said.

She said YCS is supportive of LSCFN’s application and its request for compensation, stating a penalty should be enforced when there’s environmental damages.

“It’s important for people to understand how massive and complicated mine cleanups are,” she said.

“The federal government can do better by implementing higher standards with enough time and money…whether there’s a commitment is another question.”

MNRLP’s licence is up for renewal in 2026.

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