Yukon First Nations Unite Against Controversial Mining Project

By Lloyd Dolha

Opposition to a proposed heap leach mine that could pollute Yukon River is growing among Yukon First Nations, as the territorial government has approved the mine’s next phase of development within their traditional lands. Western Copper Corporation, a junior mining company headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., plans to build a large open pit copper mine entirely within the traditional territory of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation (LSCFN). In the last week of October at a meeting of Yukon First Nations in Whitehorse, the chiefs demanded that the Yukon government not issue any licenses or permits to the proposed heap leach mine. While the First Nation is supportive of mining, it is not in support the Western Copper mine because it says there are serious environmental shortcomings in its current design state.

The proposed open pit mine will use a massive heap of ore mixed with concentrated sulphuric acid and leached with dilute sulphuric acid to recover copper metal. The heap leach pile would be as high as a thirty-story building and covering 38.5 hectares on the side of a mountain. During the environmental review process, specialists (including university professors, engineers, and PhD geochemists) warned the First Nation and the Yukon government about the project. There are serious concerns related to the potential for run off of heavy metals into the Yukon River. Copper in particular is highly poisonous to the already threatened salmon. Outstanding concerns about pollution raised during the environmental screening by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board have yet to be addressed. The chiefs are demanding that the Yukon government provide a detailed response to these serious environmental issues raised by the LSCFN experts.

Western Copper Corp. claims that they will achieve a world first and detoxify this heap, thereby avoiding the expense of dealing with any pollutants. The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board has recommended that the project proceed, but in recognition of the detoxification issue, they have stipulated that the full-scale mine proceed on the basis of it being a “field scale trial” (i.e. an experiment). The Yukon Conservation Society, however, opposes the mine on the grounds that no one has never successfully detoxified one of these heaps. Extremely small concentrations of copper (measured in parts per million) are highly toxic to fish. Salmon in particular lose their sense of smell at very low levels, seriously impairing migration, mating, and predator avoidance. “This is really an issue of concern to all Yukoners,” Chief Eddie Skookum says, “In fact, it could affect the people downstream in Alaska as well as all the people on the Yukon River watershed.”

Until now, opposition to this mine was mostly limited to the local First Nation, the Yukon Conservation Society, and the Village of Carmacks who initially objected to all the truck traffic passing down their main street. With the new resolution of all Yukon First Nations, the other Yukon First Nations are uniting both to preserve the Yukon River and to fight for a fair environmental screening process. The creek below the heap drains straight into the Yukon River, just nine kilometers away. Traffic to and from the mine will pass through LSCFN Traditional Territory, including settlement land, fish camps, heritage sites, trap lines, LSCFN cemeteries and burial sites, special habitat protection areas, and the largely First Nation community of Carmacks.

The community of Carmacks has long opposed the current plan to have all the mine traffic, including the heavy truck traffic, run through town on the main street. Over 80% of the residents of Carmacks have signed a petition against allowing the traffic to go through town. Additionally, a healthy salmon population is critical to the culture and community of the Yukon and Alaska First Nations, as well as tour operators and all Yukoners who rely on the Yukon River watershed for their livelihood.

Recent legal decisions have stipulated that governments have a strong duty to consult and accommodate First Nations’ legitimate concerns where possible. “It is insulting that the government rushes to give away resources and huge profits to a mining company based in Vancouver without accommodating the legitimate concerns of the people who live near the mine,” says Chief Skookum. “We have been here for generation upon generation. Even when we hire the most distinguished experts in the field, we are not respected. It’s like shouting in the wind. This has to change.”

The company plans on starting construction in the spring of 2009. The Yukon government has decided to allow the mine to proceed, and the company is anticipating the issue of a quartz-mining license shortly. The mine should generate approximately $123 million after taxes for its owners during its 17-year start to finish life, based on current copper values. Grand Chief Andy Carvill of the Council of Yukon Indian Nations has vowed to take the issue to the federal government if Yukon government fails to act on the matter.

The Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation is located 180kms north of Whitehorse.