Yukon government detects cyanide in creek near Victoria Gold landslide

First Nation reiterates call for mining moratorium
An aerial photo of the landslide off the heap leach facility at the Eagle Gold Mine taken on July 3. (Government of Yukon/Supplied)

Cyanide has been detected in one of the creeks near Victoria Gold’s Eagle Gold Mine following a landslide on its heap leach facility on June 24. There are also indications the earth hasn’t finished shifting.

The mine sits on the traditional territory of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun (FNNND), who have called for a moratorium of all mining activity in their territory and an independent investigation in the wake of the slide.

The territorial government has been conducting cyanide testing since the day after the slide. At a July 4 technical briefing about the situation at the mine site, Yukon Energy, Mines and Resources Minister John Streicker spoke to the first results the government has received, first noting that the water quality objective set out in Victoria Gold’s water licence allows for only 0.005 milligrams of cyanide per litre of water discharged from the mine. He explained that samples taken right next to the bottom of the slide indicate cyanide presence of 8.58 milligrams per litre.

“This water is being diverted to a containment structure and will be treated by Victoria Gold. Two sites downstream in Dublin Gulch show nominal levels of cyanide, measuring at 0.001 milligrams per litre and less than 0.001 milligrams per litre. The sample of concern collected in Haggart Creek, which is just downstream from where Dublin Gulch enters Haggart Creek, shows elevated levels of cyanide at 0.04 milligrams per litre,” Streicker said.

A statement issued by Victoria Gold shortly before the briefing began provides a contradictory tale, stating that to date no cyanide had been detected in continued surface water sampling at points downstream of the mine property.

Streicker noted that effects on fish are possible depending on other water chemistry factors at the cyanide concentrations observed in the creek.

The briefing also heard from a representative of the chief medical officer’s office who said that in the office’s view, occupational exposure for those working on the site is the biggest health risk. They recommended avoiding recreational use of the affected waterways and said that the affected creeks are not a primary drinking water source for people.

A handout provided at the technical briefing says that samples will be taken downstream of the mine site in Haggart Creek every other day and two or three times per week at other locations. There will also be some sampling of groundwater wells. Testing takes five to seven days once samples are received by the lab.

Director of mineral resources Kelly Constable informed the briefing that the landslide was about one-and-a-half kilometres in length and she says Victoria Gold has estimated the mass of it at 4 million tonnes of material. She added that roughly 2 million tonnes of material left containment.

The heap leach pad is still unstable and those at the technical briefing heard that what to do about stabilizing it to render the area more safe is under discussion.

Mark Smith, a heap leach specialist working with the government, said that secondary failures of the slope are likely as the area usually gets about 100 millimetres of rain a month in July and August. He noted a feature on the slide that is 50 or 60 metres tall, “too steep to be stable” and almost certainly set to slide down in a rainstorm or due to human intervention. He explained that it is unsafe to walk on the slide much less use equipment with that terrain feature still there so other stabilization efforts depend on it coming down.

Streicker noted that additional slides risk further environmental contamination.

The minister added that investigation efforts, including the independent review demanded by FNNND last week, are hampered by instability of the slope.

The briefing heard that Victoria Gold has whittled the crew on site down to about 60 essential workers, that water treatment is continuing and that dams are in place with the objective of containing cyanide solution.

Efforts on the site were hindered by wildfires in the area last week including one that severed power lines leaving the mine site running on generators. In an email to the News on July 4, Energy, Mines and Resources representative John Thompson said the government’s understanding is that the mine site is still running on generators and that vehicles could now travel the mine access road.

Devin Bailey, director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management, explained that the Haldane Lake fire was the one impacting the road into the mine. It was detected June 26 and is burning over 3,800 hectares. Bailey noted that recent rain and humidity has limited the fire activity. He added that Wildland Fire is working with Victoria Gold to ensure the access road is safe and that efforts are underway to assess damage to the power lines and restore power as soon as possible. Other fires in the area don’t directly threaten the access road but Bailey said there could be impacts due to heavy smoke in the area.

Also noted in Victoria Gold’s July 4 press release is that the company has received default notices from its lenders under a credit agreement from December 2020. A page on the company’s website describes a $200 million refinancing of the mine’s project debt completed that month.

Officials at the technical briefing were clear the Victoria Gold is still in charge at the site, but Streicker acknowledged the financial challenge the company faces and said the government will be prepared to step in and take up the work at the site if they do leave. The territorial government holds a $104 million security from the company meant to cover the costs of cleanup care and maintenance

Assistant deputy minister for Energy, Mines and Resources Stephen Mead noted that the security deposit was based on the state of the site prior to the landslide. Because of this, he said a re-evaluation of the security held by the government, taking into account the changed conditions and new scope of a possible cleanup project, is one of many tasks that must be completed.

Streicker said he thinks that the government, Victoria Gold and FNNND are on the same page about safety at the mine site and environmental protection being the top two priorities.

He wouldn’t commit to the mining halt that FNNND is asking for and says that the site is too unsafe for a full investigation. He added that he thinks Chief Dawna Hope and FNNND don’t want a stop of remediation work that the mining activity halt might bring about and that he is awaiting more information to make the best choice possible.

Following the briefing, Hope told the News that she wants Streicker and other Yukon government officials to stop speaking for her and the First Nation.

“This catastrophe, the Eagle Gold heap leach failure and the cyanide, we can assume is poisoning the waters and the land, including the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun settlement land downstream of the mine, underscores the importance of immediate ending of permissive business as usual approach to mineral development in our traditional territory,” Hope said.

“The catastrophe must serve as a wake up call to all Yukoners and all of Canada. We can no longer prioritize short-term economic interest over the health and well-being of our people and the environment. Mining in its current form is neither safe nor sustainable, making it very irresponsible and enough is enough.”

Hope said she took some offence to the word from the chief medical officer’s office that the affected creek and the river it drains into are not primary drinking water sources, noting its importance to her people and the guarantees made in the FNNND final agreement.

“Downstream of Haggart Creek, it drains into the South McQuesten, where we have our spring fishery. The issues we are talking about are invisible. You cannot see them, and that is why it's taking so long waiting for the results to come back. My people can no longer dip their cup in that water while they're camping there, fishing, nor can we be confident that we can even fish there anymore. That is what is of utmost concern to us. We do drink that water, and we have rights to drink that water within those final agreements.”

Hope added that FNNND’s environmental monitor on the site is taking water samples twice a day, more frequently than the government is, and that results are beginning to arrive.

She was also clear that the remediation and cleanup work must continue but that FNNND is calling for a halt to mining and mineral staking until land-use planning for the region is completed.

The Yukon NDP has gotten behind the FNNND's calls for a pause on mining and an independent investigation.

Contact Jim Elliot at [email protected]

Jim Elliot

About the Author: Jim Elliot

I’m a B.C. transplant here in Whitehorse at The News telling stories about the Yukon's people, environment, and culture.
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