Yukon First Nation unhappy with cleanup of abandoned mine

The area has been a source of devastating contamination for decades.

A First Nation in Yukon is raising serious concern about the remediation work being conducted at an abandoned mine site and its asking the Yukon Water Board to intervene.

The Mount Nansen mine lies on the traditional territory of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation (LSCFN) in the community of Carmacks, 180 km north of Whitehorse.

Chief Nicole Tom said her people traditionally use the area to exercise their harvesting rights and many consider it a place of spiritual importance.

“It’s where we pick our berries, where we go hunting, fishing,” she said. “I think a lot of the time it’s referred to as a healing place up there, and it’s a chance to get away from everything.”

But the area has also been a source of devastating contamination for decades.

Chief Nicole Tom (Photo: Sara Connors/APTN)

In 1999, the mine was declared abandoned after its owner, BYG Natural Resources, was twice ordered by Canada to stop operations at the site due to blatant breaches of its water license.

A territorial court convicted BYG of three offences for failing to comply with its water license and imposed $300,000 worth of fines. The court described BYG as an “environmental disaster” and an “embarrassment to Canada” with breaches including failed toxicity tests and unacceptable concentrations of zinc and cyanide.

Now, LSCFN is taking issue with the company responsible for cleaning up the site.

In 2019, Mount Nansen Remediation Ltd. Partnership (MNRLP), a joint venture between Ensero Solutions and JDS Energy and Mining, purchased legal rights to the site. The company performs care and maintenance and remediation work on behalf of the federal government and has been doing so since 2021.

Still, the work is not sitting well with LSCFN.

The Dome Creek stream is part of the abandoned Mount Nansen mine site. Photo courtesy Mount Nansen Remediation Ltd. Partnership

Although it declined to go into detail with APTN, the First Nation’s application to the Yukon Water Board, an independent body under the Waters Act, claims MNRLP’s operations are making things worse and preventing its citizens from exercising their Aboriginal and treaty rights under their Final Agreement.

The extensive filing lists numerous environmental and human health concerns. It also alleges that  contamination is worsening and MNRLP is repeatedly breaching its water license.

“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,” a copy of the document obtained by APTN states.

Other concerns are that effluent quality standards for the five treated contaminants are “significantly” above government-regulated guidelines, MNRLP’s water license contamination levels allow 50 per cent of fish to die within four days, and MNRLP “consistently” fails to monitor dozens of required surface and groundwater monitoring stations on a month-to-month basis.

“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,” the document states.

Hunt, fish, gather

“It is unacceptable that LSCFN Citizens can no longer hunt, fish, gather, and peacefully enjoy the environment around Mount Nansen. It is unconscionable that more than 20 years after mining was abandoned, contamination levels in the area continue to (allegedly) increase and environmental conditions continue to deteriorate due to inadequate care and maintenance.”

LSCFN’s application to the board asks for amendments to the water license and for it to order MNRLP to comply with conditions under its water license. It also calls for a public hearing and compensation for loss and damage.

But those behind MNRLP say they are following the standards placed upon them.

Jim Harrington, CEO of Ensero Solutions, said MNRLP took over an interim water license previously negotiated by the Yukon government and other parties until a final plan could be put in place. The license entailed building a water treatment plant that met certain standards and its design was implemented before work started at the site.

“Essentially, we built the treatment plant that was required by the license that we were given, and we’ve maintained compliance 100 per cent with that,” Harrington said.

Water quality 

Harrington notes that while water quality coming from the site has “certainly improved” – thanks to the water treatment plant – he confirmed water quality in some other areas had gotten worse, though he’s not convinced its MNRLP’s operations that are causing it.

“Closed mines or abandoned mines are never in a static condition,” he said. “Certainly, we don’t fully understand that and that’s why we’re doing studies (and) coming up to speed with how the site behaves. It takes a little while to get the data that we need to get in order to fully understand that.”

Harrington’s confident a final plan will help address operations at the site, such as improving water quality from the water treatment plant and surrounding creeks and other areas, and is hopeful LSCFN’s concerns will be addressed when that plan is released.

“In the end, we want the work product to be something that everyone can be proud of, but most especially the LSCFN,” he said.

Big mess

Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, said MNRLP has “inherited a mess” when it comes to contamination at the mine site.

“They’ve got cyanide, arsenic – it’s a big mess,” he said.You can’t wave a magic wand and clean up a mine site. Any contaminated mine site is really tricky.”

He said the goal now should be remediating the site.

“The longer we wait, the worse things get. Things deteriorate and degrade. More and more water leaks out, ground water plumes get contaminated,” he said.

We’re in this situation where they’re basically just doing care and maintenance, they’re trying to keep things as it is – and I would argue they’re not doing a good job – we’re not even closure and remediation. So, the longer and longer we wait, the worse it’s going to get.”

Rifkind said he’s never seen applicants appeal to the Yukon Water Board for compensation.

“I think is a first, from what I can recall…it’s going to be interesting to see where this goes,” he said.

In its most recent filing to the Yukon Water Board, MNRLP called on Canada and Yukon government as necessary parties for its application due to their longer involvement with the site.

It’s not yet clear when and if a public hearing will occur.

As for Tom, she’s hopeful for a resolution that will allow her people to one day use the land as intended in their Aboriginal and treaty rights.

“My hope is for clean water. My hope is that the berries, the medicine, our citizens, be able to access that site and harvest, and in order for that to happen, the water has to be clean.”

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