Site C Dam Eyed to Power Yukon’s Mining Boom

A new proposal to send power from B.C.’s Site C dam to remote Yukon mines is baffling on both environmental and financial grounds, according to Yukon mining analyst Lewis Rifkind.

Rifkind, a civil engineer who works for the Yukon Conservation Society in Whitehorse, said beyond environmental concerns associated with the mines, the “lunatic” cost of building more than a thousand kilometres of transmission lines for short-term projects makes the prospect nonsensical.

The idea was floated this week by Yukon energy and mines minister Ranj Pillai, who said that proposed new Yukon mines will require additional power sources and that the Site C dam could provide that energy with a $1.5 billion to $2 billion investment in transmission lines.

The catch, explained Rifkind, is that taxpayers would end up footing the bulk of the bill for transmission lines to far-flung mines that might only operate for a few years.

“We’re privatizing the profits and socializing the risk. Mines go bankrupt and the owners skedaddle. And then we have to tidy up the mess.”

Rifkind pointed to the Wolverine mine as an example of the short lifespan of territory mines. That mine — a zinc operation in the Yukon’s southeast — was supposed to be in operation for 10 years after it opened in 2012 but shut down after just three.

And it will cost taxpayers more than $500 million to clean up leaching waste rock and tailings at the Yukon’s abandoned lead-zinc Faro mine, whose toxic waste covers the equivalent of more than 26,000 football fields and lies one metre deep, according to the federal government.

Northern mining boom in the works  

The Yukon is poised for a mining boom, with a half dozen new copper, gold, and silver mines in various stages of permitting, environmental assessments and early construction. The territory currently has only one operational hard rock mine.

The new mines intend to burn fossil fuels like natural gas for power, which Rifkind said is “not necessarily a bad thing” given other considerations such as the “awful” lifespan of Yukon mines, the profound environmental damage caused by Site C, and the greenhouse gas emissions emitted during dam construction and from dam reservoirs.

“Even if they were to build a small local hydro dam we’d be flooding a river and a lot of the rivers are salmon habitat…and usually those dams are built at taxpayers’ expense. Why should we destroy our environment, why should we use our taxpayers dollars to subsidize something that’s probably only going to last for three years?”

Even if the mines operate for 10 years, Rifkind said it is “a crazy idea” to spend billions of dollars to connect them to Site C’s power. “That doesn’t even address the cost of building Site C and the huge environmental harm it’s doing.”

“The [mines] are hundreds of kilometers from the existing hydro grid in the Yukon, never mind the hook-up to B.C. It’s not just a matter of running lines from Site C to the Yukon border. You’ve then got to do another 400 kilometres to get to the Yukon grid. And then some of those mines are another 150 kilometres or 200 kilometers off the grid.”

What’s the story with all those new Yukon mines?

Planned Yukon mines that could use Site C’s energy under Pillai’s scheme include:

  • The Casino copper and silver mine proposed by Vancouver-based Western Copper and Gold Corp. on a stream called Canadian Creek that drains into the Yukon River. The earthen dam for Casino’s tailings pond would stretch 285 metres in height and hold eight times the volume of the Mount Polley tailings pond, whose failed dam was 40 metres high. Road access to Casino would be through the range of the Klaza caribou herd.
  • The Coffee gold mine planned by Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc., one of the world’s largest gold producers. Coffee would be an open pit and heap leach mine on the Yukon River, 130 kilometres south of Dawson, operational for 10 years. Last July, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board halted its review of the project, saying that Goldcorp did not adequately consult with the Tr’ondek Hwëch’in, Selkirk, and Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nations, which would be affected by the mine.
  • The Selwyn lead-zinc mine in eastern Yukon, proposed by the Chinese-owned mining company Selwyn Chihong. The mine would be accessed through the Northwest Territories, along a road that runs through parts of the Nááts’ihch’oh and Nahanni national park reserves. Trucks carrying lead and zinc concentrates would travel to port facilities in Stewart, B.C.

Rifkind said only one of the planned mines — Victoria Gold Corp’s proposed open pit Eagle Gold Mine in the Dublin Gulch watershed, 350 kilometres north of Whitehorse — is anywhere near the grid.

Victoria Gold Corp. has already said it will pay for a 35-kilometre transmission line to connect to the existing Yukon grid, which gets more than 90 per cent of its power from a single Whitehorse dam.

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Ugo Lapointe, national program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said he finds it “sad and disconcerting” that B.C. went through such a harsh debate over the $10.7 billion Site C dam and decided to sacrifice a valley potentially to send power to new Yukon mines.

He said the mines will “come and go” and that he is troubled by the idea that Site C’s electricity could go to Alberta’s oilsands operations or to speculative mines in the Yukon.

“Since when do we invest massive amounts of public money without having an idea of what it’s going to be for and who will actually be able to use it, and how?”

Can wind and solar help reduce carbon emissions for mines?

Both Lapointe and Rifkind said there are far more environmentally sound ways to help meet power needs for new northern mines while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Lapointe pointed to the Raglan Mine, a large nickel complex in Quebec’s Nunavik region that installed wind turbines and a small energy storage facility in 2014. In the first two years of operation, the mining company saved 4.5 million litres of diesel and avoided 12,600 tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Rifkind said new Yukon mines can install solar arrays and small wind turbines to meet some of their energy needs, reducing fossil fuel reliance. Once the mines close, he said the renewable energy infrastructure could be moved to a Yukon community as a legacy from the mining project.

How much would it cost to ship Site C’s power to Yukon mines?

A 2016 report found that constructing a 763-kilometre transmission line from Iskut, B.C. to Whitehorse — either to import or export energy — was not economical. The cost of the line was pegged at $1.7 billion at the time.

In an emailed statement to DeSmog Canada, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines said no formal discussions have taken place between the B.C. and Yukon governments and “it’s too early to comment on any possible transmission intertie between the two jurisdictions.”

BC Hydro is interested in serving new customers provided that it is economic to do so, but studies would have to be done before deciding on possible transmission line routes and the price of energy “would be subject to negotiations,” the energy ministry said in the statement.

Industry Canada confirmed to DeSmog Canada that a transmission line from B.C. to the Yukon would qualify for funding from Canada’s new Infrastructure Bank.

New funding agreements are currently being negotiated with the provinces, and a transmission line to the Yukon or Alberta would also be eligible for green infrastructure funding.

Rifkind said it would be “insane” to use taxpayers’ dollars to pay for transmission lines to send Site C’s power to the Yukon, in part because of significant power losses when electricity travels long distances.

About five per cent of power is lost through long-distance transmission in B.C., and another five per cent through local transmission, meaning that at least 10 per cent of the power that would be shipped from Site C to the Yukon would be lost.

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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