More than a quarter of a century after the last truckload of rock left the Faro mine pit, it appears a long-sought cleanup is underway. On February 15, Canada signed a $108 million contract with Parsons Inc. for construction management and two years of care and maintenance at the Faro mine site.
Parsons, one of the biggest sanitation players in the world, boasts that its “contract could span 20 years and top $2 billion”.
The numbers are staggering, says Lewis Rifkind of the Yukon Conservation Society. After all, $2.2 billion is the total federal allocation over 15 years for the Northern Abandoned Mines Program designed for eight mines in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Faro is just one, and the federal contract does not include the Vangorda Plateau portion of the Faro site, which was sold separately for future, concurrent development and reclamation.
But despite everything, the numbers continue to increase and the calendar keeps getting longer. Five years ago the costs were estimated at $500 million over 10 to 15 years, and now the estimates are $2 billion over 20 years.
In addition to the contract awarded to Parsons this week, another $5.8 million contract was awarded to another company, CH2M Hill Canada Ltd., to design a water treatment plant for the site. According to Treasury Board data, these two contracts add to total federal spending on the Faro mine site between 2006 and 2021, which amounts to more than $600 million.
The geology drove the creation of the mine and drove the cleanup. The tailings, which cover an area equivalent to more than 26,000 football fields, create acid rock drainage which, if not alleviated, will worsen over time. There are approximately 70 million tonnes of tailings and 320 million tonnes of waste rock at the Faro site.
Once billed as the world’s largest open pit lead-zinc mine, Faro’s history is not a straight or smooth line. Faro is a story of fanatical prospectors, ambitious and visionary collaborators, and an assortment of wheelers and dealers, aided and abetted by passionate politicians.
They gave up on creating a mine and a town essentially in the middle of nowhere and convinced the authorities to build a new hydroelectric dam and improve the highways; and for banks and governments to open their wallets with an assortment of loans, loan guarantees and grants—sometimes called “other people’s money”. A book of the same name documents the rise and fall of one of Faro’s mine owners, Dome Petroleum.
Faro’s peak of prosperity in the late 1970s was under the Dome Mandate and boasted the highest standard of living for the community’s 2,500 residents. The workers were paid $25 an hour and the cafeteria served steak and lobster. It was the heady days of Dome Petroleum.
But Dome’s dealings paled in comparison to those of Curragh Resources’ tenure under Clifford Frame with its hard-nosed approach to mining, which ended in the deaths of 26 miners at its Westray mine, which also put end to his Faro business.
Between closures and shutdowns, Faro produced ore for approximately 22 of the 28 years between 1970 and 1998. Community comfort rose and fell with the price of ore. The townsite was carefully planned, but it was burned down in a forest fire in 1968, a year after completion. The city was rebuilt with tiers of housing stratified by rank (executives on the upper bank) and dormitories on the lower bench. It was carefully located away from Ross River and most of its First Nations employees worked in the adjacent Carmacks coal mine.
Faro’s legacy extends across the Yukon. He created the demand for the Aishihik Hydroelectric Dam that left the territory with excess hydroelectric capacity for decades, opened the South Klondike Highway year-round, left a viable townsite with affordable housing supported by a municipal grant that left structures in place to house care and maintenance workers in the future.
But the colonial arrogance of the time is much more apparent today than then. The federal government says that land remediation and restoration is part of reconciliation efforts with First Nations. Submissions from Liard First Nation to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Council show that they are not entirely convinced that the standards set for remediation are high enough.
Parsons now manages two of the largest mine closure and reclamation projects in the world, the Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and now the Faro Mine Remediation Project, both of which rank among the top five on the list of the most contaminated sites in Canada.
Rifkind says that without mining there would be no salvage industry, likening it to a modified form of Naomi Klien’s concept of disaster capitalism – companies that specialize in mass environmental cleanup after operations massive mines have left a mess.
That said, and apart from the huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions that will be released as part of this project, and ignoring the amount of lime that will be needed, Rifkind says Parsons would be his choice of company to also undertake the project. .
“We are grateful that something is actually happening. At least they are doing something,” he says.
And for First Nations, the rehabilitation pill is harder to swallow. Never settled and never surrendered, Liard First Nation and the Ross River Dene Council have witnessed the slow and cumulative destruction of animal habitat and the erosion of their wilderness of clean rivers and lakes.
“The legacy of harm is both physical and emotional,” said Ross River Dena Council Chief Jack Caesar. In a statement, he said, “Canada’s sincere efforts to support a remediation process that includes our community is a major step towards improving both the land and the experience of our peoples around the land.” Faro mine.
Rifkind calls it a “big environmental mess.” All this, stemming from the dreams of a couple of stubborn prospectors in the 1960s and 1970s: both died tragically in 1977.
Contact Lawrie Crawford at [email protected]