North

Mining on wetlands debated at Yukon Water Board hearing

First Nations and placer miners disagree over how much harm is done to the environment when wetlands are dug up for mining. The issue was before the Yukon Water Board this week.

First Nations and placer miners disagree over how much harm is done to the environment

The Indian River, about 30 kilometres south of Dawson City, Yukon, is at the centre of concerns about placer mining in undisturbed wetlands. (Bing)

The Yukon Water Board is hearing conflicting demands at a public hearing this week about placer mining on wetlands in the territory.

First Nations, conservation groups, industry and others are participating in a three-day virtual hearing that ends Thursday.

The water board has released about 30 draft guidelines that applicants for a water licence would have to follow when planning a project in an area that includes wetlands.

The flashpoint for the issue has been the Indian River valley south of Dawson City, Yukon, which has been extensively mined over the past 100 years. It's in the traditional territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in.

On Tuesday a delegation of citizens led by the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Government shared the history of wetlands in their traditional territory and the impacts of placer mining on the environment and traditional ways of life.

Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Chief Roberta Joseph asked the water board to suspend issuing any licences for mining operations on wetlands in her First Nation's traditional territory. (Dave Croft/CBC)

"We need the water board to step in and stop further damage," Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Chief Roberta Joseph told the panel.

"We need you to stop issuing licences, there will be terrible, terrible harm where wetlands can't be restored, and to work with us to make sure the right measures are in place going forward," she said.

Joseph said the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in supports sustainable development. But she said until measures are in place to ensure wetlands are protected and reclaimed, there should be no further mining in wetlands on its traditional territory.

The Klondike Placer Miners Association led a delegation on Wednesday that included miners, scientific and legal representatives.

Will Fellers, the president of the Klondike Placer Miners' Association, says placer mines are like the family farm of the North. (KPMA)

The association's president Will Fellers said most of the placer mines are family owned and multi-generational.

"Placer mines are like the family farm of the North," he said.

With proper reclamation work, Fellers said, exhausted claims revert to shallow water wetlands that Yukon wildlife thrives in.

'Just not feasible,' miners say

The draft guidelines require the placer miners to provide detailed explanations of their project plans with technical and expert knowledge.

Fellers said the association estimates affected water licence applications will cost the applicants between $68,000 and $163,000.

"This is sometimes more money than some of the operations will produce in gold alone in the entire season," he said.

"So to expect small operators to go through all of this process, it's just not feasible," said Fellers.

He also questioned the water board's legal authority to impose the guidelines on the industry.

A photo shown at the water board hearing showing a reclaimed placer claim in the Indian River valley. (KPMA)

Brooke Rudolph, the association's executive director, told board members that making an application more difficult does not help the environment.

"We would encourage and we would like to see that our best management practices that we've developed be accepted as the best first step today," said Rudolph.

"And we can work on educating miners and regulators together on how they're implemented and enforce that implementation." 

The chair of the water board, Piers McDonald, challenged some of the claims.

In particular he disputed the doubts raised about the board's legal authority under the Yukon Waters Act.

"A fairly major proportion of the intervention this morning has been to encourage the water board, to put it in colloquial terms, to stick to their knitting," said McDonald.

But he said the board also has powers under the Placer Mining Act.

The board's website says information presented at the hearing will be used further develop the guidelines.

With files from Chris MacIntyre and Dave Croft

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