Massive Faro mine clean-up will begin in 2022, two decades after closure

Remediation of the former lead-zinc mine in Yukon will likely cost more than $500 million, and take 10 to 15 years to complete.

The former lead-zinc mine in Yukon, closed in 1998; cleanup estimated to cost more than $500 million

The tailings dams at the Faro mine. The intermediate dam, second from right, will be raised and strengthened over the next few years. (Yukon Conservation Society)

The federal and Yukon governments say they are on track to begin the Faro mine remediation project in 2022. It will be a massive effort to deal with millions of tonnes of tailings and waste rock, and likely cost more than half a billion dollars.

The two levels of government are in the middle of a consultation process in Yukon on how the remediation should proceed. Reporters were given an update on the mine closure plan on Monday in Whitehorse.

The Faro lead-zinc mine was abandoned by its bankrupt owners in 1998. They left behind a mess that was estimated in 2009 to cost about $500 million to clean up, but is probably more expensive now, said Lou Spagnuolo, project director for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

"It's likely to go up — as inflation and costs go up, those costs will likely go up as well," he said.

The plan will take 10 to 15 years to complete, said Spagnuolo, with ongoing and varying degrees of monitoring continuing indefinitely.

Before any of that begins, though, attention will be on fixing two urgent problems as early as next year, Spagnuolo said.

​The north fork of Rose Creek needs to be rerouted around high levels of zinc that are seeping into the creek from piles of waste rock. Also, the intermediate tailings dam needs to be strengthened and raised to meet current regulations for withstanding flooding and earthquakes. 

Federal official Lou Spagnuolo, left, and his territorial counterpart Dustin Rainey, updated reporters at a briefing Monday in Whitehorse. (Dave Croft/CBC)

70 million tonnes of tailings

The biggest cost of the full remediation plan will be covering 320 million tonnes of waste rock and 70 million tonnes of tailings, Spagnuolo said. A department handout says the waste would cover 26,179 football fields, one metre deep.

Spagnuolo said without the work, the Pelly and Yukon Rivers could be polluted with toxic metals.

"As the site degrades, the acid rock drainage will get worse and will leach heavy metals from the rock. So you'll see an increase in zinc levels in particular, is the biggest concern. We're monitoring that site constantly."

While the federal government is paying the bills, the territorial government will oversee the implementation of the remediation plan.

The senior project manager for the territory's department of energy, mines and resources, Dustin Rainey, said it's already in charge of care and maintenance at the mine site.

He said the main job is making sure contaminated water isn't getting into clean water, and treating contaminated water.

Rainey said the treatment plant at the mine site processes about as much water each year as the City of Whitehorse produces.

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