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9 things you need to know about the Coffee Gold mine, proposed for a remote corner of Yukon

If built, the project could become the largest gold mine in the territory’s history and employ 430 people over its lifetime — but would require building a new road, disturbing permafrost and increasing carbon emissions

Just over 100 years ago, droves of people hunting for gold arrived in Yukon from all around the world in what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. Dawson City became their mecca. The stampede lasted for about two years, then, almost overnight, they left.  

But the gold they came for remains, albeit contained mostly in harder-to-reach deposits. 

Enter the proposed Coffee Gold mine, which if built could be the largest gold mine the territory has ever seen. 

Proposed by Goldcorp Kaminak Ltd., a subsidiary of Newmont (a U.S.-based multinational corporation with mines everywhere from Africa to Nevada), the Coffee Gold mine would consist of four open pits about 130 kilometres south of Dawson City next to its namesake Coffee Creek, in a relatively undeveloped area.  

The Coffee Gold mine is currently under review by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, which just closed its second public engagement period. Here’s what you need to know about the proposal. 

How big is the Coffee Gold mine compared to other Yukon mines?

The Coffee property covers about 22,000 hectares, about half the size of Whitehorse. 

The project is expected to produce roughly 2.6 million ounces of gold during the 10 years it operates, according to the company’s proposal. While the amount of gold in the ground has yet to be confirmed, that projection could make it the largest gold mine in Yukon.

By comparison, Victoria Gold’s Eagle Gold Mine near Mayo — which is the largest gold mine in Yukon history — is expected to produce 2.1 million ounces of gold over 10 years. (It will operate for 11 years.) 

Another even larger mine is in the works, though: the Casino Mine Corporation is preparing a submission for a panel review — the most stringent type of environmental assessment — for its Casino Mine west of Carmacks, which would produce 8.9 million ounces of gold over roughly 22 years. The company also plans to mine for copper. 

The Coffee Gold project plans to employ 430 miners over the course of its life, while about 300 people work at the Eagle Gold mine. 

Map of mines in Yukon: Coffee Gold mine, Eagle Gold mine, Casino mine, Minto Mine.

There are two operating mines in Yukon currently — Minto and Eagle. Coffee Gold and Casino are both under review. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

How will the gold be extracted?

The Coffee mine would use a process called cyanide heap leach to extract gold. Basically, gold ore is crushed and placed on a large pad, which could be upward of 80 metres high in places, according to the company’s proposal. A cyanide solution is then poured over the pile to separate gold from other rock. Beneath the rock pile is a synthetic liner, which shields the environment from leakage. The cyanide is collected, then recycled until it’s needed again. 

Cyanide, a naturally occurring chemical that can be lethal at high doses, is found in many things — from cigarette smoke to pesticides. 

While the cyanide heap leach process is commonly used in mining and eliminates the need for toxic tailings ponds, that doesn’t mean there aren’t environmental concerns, said Lewis Rifkind, the mining analyst at the Yukon Conservation Society, which entered a submission to the public engagement process. Plastic liners could rupture, he said.

“That’s where the concern is, especially in the North,” he said. “We’ve got weird ground conditions, you know, discontinuous permafrost, fractured ground rock. There’s always a risk putting these things in.”

The heap leach process is used at Victoria Gold’s Eagle Mine. Rifkind said he raised similar concerns when that mine was making its way through the environmental assessment process.

Rifkind wants to know whether the Coffee project will include two liners. That way if one breaks, there will be another to catch any leaks. 

“If they’re going to use it, it has to be of the highest quality possible, the highest standard possible,” he said.

What are the impacts of disturbing permafrost?

Permafrost covers a substantial amount of land across the North. In order to build, well, pretty much anything, this has to be taken into consideration. 

In a submission to the assessment board, Newmont said permafrost disturbance is “partially reversible.”

Katarzyna Nowak, a conservation science coordinator at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter, said she wants to know what this means exactly — how can permafrost damage be reversible, even partially?

“This project is admitting that it’s going to disturb permafrost,” she said. “Permafrost holds huge stores of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide, which are going to be released if disturbed. It also has the potential to release pathogens.”

Nowak said possible permafrost damage should be included in baseline measurements to determine potential impacts when the mine shutters.

Will the next great pandemic come from the permafrost?

What road infrastructure would have to be built?

The Coffee Gold mine would involve building a road called the Northern Access Route, which would total 214 kilometres. Existing roads make up about 100 kilometres of it. Construction would include upgrading a matrix of roads and trails sometimes used by placer miners, who sift through rocks and gravel in riverbeds for gold. The Stewart and Yukon Rivers need to be crossed, which would entail building a new barge landing and upgrading three others.  

Rifkind said this would mean a level of access the area has never seen before, adding that anyone with two-wheel drive would be able to enter. 

This creates concerns about the introduction of invasive species and added pressure on caribou and moose populations. 

The conservation society is requesting a cumulative effects study to address these issues.

It’s unclear if taxpayers would foot the bill for the road construction.

What about the Dawson land-use plan?

The Dawson Regional Planning Commission is working on a land-use plan with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and the Yukon government to determine the implications of future land use. The plan will lay out how land will be managed and monitored.

The Umbrella Final Agreement, signed in 1993 by Yukon First Nations and the Yukon and Canadian governments, sets a framework for First Nations interested in settling land claims and lays out a roadmap regarding land-use planning. Eleven of 14 Yukon First Nations (including Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in) have settled their land claims and are self-governing — meaning they can create and enact laws, for example, and have far more jurisdiction than First Nations in southern Canada, most of which fall under the Indian Act.

A resource assessment report will be released this month, according to the commission’s website.

The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society wants the Dawson land-use plan to be completed before a decision is made about the Coffee project. 

“A plan on how First Nations and people living in Dawson agree to use the land should really come first,” Nowak told The Narwhal.

Last summer, Yukon governments, including First Nations, inked the precedent-setting Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan, which protects most of the watershed.   

How will the mine be powered?

Roughly 90 per cent of power in Yukon comes from hydroelectricity. The two producing hard rock mines in Yukon — Minto, a copper-gold mine about 240 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, and Victoria Gold’s Eagle Mine — are connected to the grid, so the bulk of the power they use to fuel their operations is relatively clean. However, more remote projects that aren’t connected to the grid often have to burn fossil fuels and this would likely be the case for the Coffee mine.

Natural gas and diesel would be used to generate electricity at the mine, according to the company’s statement of scope of project submitted to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board. Roughly 19 million kilowatt hours of energy would be used annually — enough electricity to power about 1,357 Yukon homes for an entire year. 

Newmont is harnessing renewable energy elsewhere, however. One of the company’s mines in Nevada has solar arrays that power two wireless communication sites. Its Akyem mine in Ghana has a 120-kilowatt solar plant, which cut 32,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide during a five-month period, according to Omar Jabara, a Newmont spokesperson.

Asked whether the Coffee mine would use renewable energy, Jabara said, “Currently, our focus is exploration, and as we continue to grow our knowledge, we will continue to review energy alternatives [that] will support the long-term sustainability of the project.”

Eagle Gold mine

The Eagle Gold Mine in central Yukon. Photo: Bighouseproductions.ca

How could the Coffee Gold mine fit into Yukon’s climate change plan?

In November, the Yukon government unveiled a plan to tackle climate change, laying the groundwork to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent over 10 years. The final iteration of the plan is expected to be released next month.

The plan targets transportation, which accounts for about 62 per cent of emissions in Yukon, energy production and home heating, to name a few. It also sets in motion intensity-based targets for mines, which will be determined per kilotonne of emissions produced.

There’s too much wiggle room with these mine-specific targets, said Rifkind, because if production ramps up, so too do greenhouse gas emissions.

This is why the Coffee project doesn’t align with the aspirations of the plan, he said.

“We’re trying to get overall greenhouse gas emissions down. If we go to intensity targets, we could end up in a situation where our greenhouse gases go through the roof, especially if some very large mines come online like Casino.”

“As long as your emissions keep going up, you’re not addressing the core issue. We’ve introduced an economic argument into what is an environmental issue.” 

Do local communities have concerns about Coffee Gold?

The Narwhal recently reported that another mine project in Yukon is stoking concern among First Nations leaders. Ann Maje Raider, the executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, said the proposed Kudz Ze Kayah mine could negatively impact First Nations women and girls if issues aren’t addressed.

There are similar concerns when it comes to the Coffee Gold mine.

Aja Mason, director of Yukon Status of Women Council, said a greater influx of transient, male workers in the area could lead to a spike in violence against women. 

“The Yukon territory has some of the highest rates of domestic and sexualized violence reported across the country. It’s already sort of a tinder box for domestic violence. That insight applies to any type of extractive project in the Yukon.”

The organization submitted feedback to the assessment board, pointing out that Carmacks and Dawson “have some of the highest rates of reported drug, alcohol, domestic and sexualized violence in Yukon.”

The project is near three communities — Dawson City, Carmacks and Destruction Bay. The closest women’s shelter is in Dawson, Mason said. 

“If you’re living in Carmacks, that’s like a four-hour drive,” she said.

Mason wants to see a social remediation fund established by Newmont to create more support services for women and girls in the area. She also wants the company to spearhead regular training sessions regarding the history of violence and colonization in Yukon, along with ongoing anti-harassment and anti-sexualized-violence training. A third-party monitoring program should be established to track possible impacts of the project, especially against Indigenous women, she said.

In 2018, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in signed a collaboration agreement with Goldcorp. Baked into it are assurances such as jobs for citizens and environmental protections.

“I think for the most part the major issues have been addressed,” Chief Roberta Joseph told The Narwhal, noting that the First Nation worked with the company prior to submitting an application to the assessment body. “It’s an ongoing process because from time to time there are changes that need to be reviewed.”

Issues that have been addressed between the company and First Nation include ensuring adequate data collection and reclamation plans, Joseph said. 

According to the proposal, reclamation plans involve annual water monitoring, capping the heap leach operation and installing boulders at pits.  

Yukon First Nations leaders fear mine will increase violence against women in ‘land of the caribou’

Where is the project at in the environmental assessment process?

The environmental assessment process can be best characterized as a long round of pinball, with information going back and forth between the company, the public, First Nations, NGOs and government departments. Eventually, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board makes a recommendation to governments, which they can accept or reject.

When it comes to the Coffee Gold mine, this pinball game has lasted about three years already. Prior to being bought by Newmont, Goldcorp first submitted a project application in 2017, with a public comment period in 2018.  

The project underwent significant project changes last year, spurring another public comment period, which closed in March. Those changes included increasing the rate of production and revising the rock storage plans, Yeomans said. The assessment body went back to the company on April 29 with 44 requests for more information to address outstanding issues.

“The ball is now in their court to go through these questions and supply the information,” Yeomans said, adding that Newmont has upward of two years to provide more information.   

“We don’t expect it to be that long.”

The assessment body is in the process of completing a draft screening report, which will encapsulate public comments and additional information supplied by the company — providing the clearest picture of the project to date and identifying outstanding issues.

Yeomans said all comments gleaned during the public engagement period are being considered.

Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

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