This Yukon First Nation wants to use native plants to help remediate abandoned mine sites

‘We want to return our lands back to what they were

Reclamation work on the abandoned Faro Mine is set to start in 2024. A native plant nursery in the works in nearby Ross River wants to play a part. Photo: Matt Jacques / The Narwhal

With unreclaimed mine sites littering Kaska territory, the community of Ross River is hatching a plan to help solve the problem: an industrial-scale nursery replete with native plants.

In southeastern Yukon, the Faro, Ketza and Wolverine mines have all seen their owners go bankrupt, leaving behind contamination and hefty cleanup tabs. Here, the community of Ross River, which is less than 180 kilometres away from all three mines, sees an opportunity.

The native plant nursery will be the first of its kind in Yukon, according to the project’s organizers, with a scale and mandate of supporting major reclamation projects that sets it apart from other nurseries in the territory.

The Yukon Research Centre at Yukon University quantified the need for and barriers to accessing native plants for reclamation efforts in a 2017 report. This work drew on interviews with ecologists, consultants and industry players and found that using native plants was preferred and generally considered best practice in remediation, but was not always an option due to access.

Ross River’s native plant nursery could remedy this.

“We want to return our lands back to what they were,” said Jody Inkster, environmental manager and biologist at Dena Cho Environmental and Remediation Inc., which is leading the nursery project on behalf of the Ross River Dena Council. “It’s going to take a long time to do that, and to begin that process, we need to bring back the vegetation. Right now, we’re left with these abandoned mine sites that we’re trying to clean up for future generations.”

Why native plants?

Mine sites in Yukon can be harsh environments for plants to grow. Not only is there a short growing season in the territory, but there’s a lack of organic material, dry soils and high concentrations of metal in these sites, according to the Yukon Research Centre report. Native plants are best, as they are adapted to grow and survive in Yukon. Plus, using them ensures that invasive species aren’t introduced.

While the Yukon government requires mining companies to replant lands they’ve disturbed as part of the reclamation process, there’s no clear stipulation that native plants be used, the Yukon Research Centre found. Regulations allow instead for use of what’s available and adaptable to the local environment.

Ross River’s plans would ensure that different types of local grasses, shrubs and trees, for instance, are available, while removing transportation costs from producers in southern regions. And, once firmly established, there could be potential to sell to buyers across the borders of the Northwest Territories and Alaska that have similar, and similarly adapted, flora.

“Using native plants, they’re adapted to where they grow,” Inkster said. “They’re better at establishing themselves, and we’re not introducing plants from down south from Alberta. They have the genetics to grow more successfully. It just makes sense and uses traditional knowledge, as well.”

The business case for a nursery

The cash cow for the nursery will be larger sites in need of remediation, such as the Wolverine and Faro mines. The cleanup costs for the latter, a zinc and lead mine that was once the largest in the world, could require $500 million from federal coffers (thanks to its bankrupt owner).

Remediation at Faro mine is expected to begin in 2024 and will require a lot of revegetation work — more than 600 acres worth, or up to 200,000 seedlings per year over 10 to 15 years of work, according to the Yukon Research Centre.

The Wolverine mine is another candidate for locally sourced seedlings, though a start date for reclamation hasn’t yet been determined. In 2018, the Yukon government requested an additional $25 million from the bankrupt Yukon Zinc company to remediate the former underground mine that primarily extracted zinc. A recent Yukon Supreme Court decision waived this request, while ruling that any further money squeezed from the site — through the liquidation of assets, for instance — will go to the territorial government for reclamation work.

“These are, collectively, multi-billions of dollars of remediation work,” said Stanley Noel, chief executive officer of Dena Nezziddi Development, the economic development arm of Ross River Dena Council, which owns Dena Cho Environmental and Remediation. “Those are our critical clients.”

The Faro Mine was abandoned in 1998, leaving behind 320 million tonnes of waste rock and 70 million tonnes of tailings. Photo: Matt Jacques / The Narwhal

Native plant nursery in Ross River

A rendering of the Ross River Dena Council’s proposed native plant nursery. Image: Dena Nezziddi Development Corporation

But it isn’t only the delinquent miners and abandoned contaminated sites of today that Ross River has in its sights. Mining companies still operating in Yukon, or still working towards opening their doors, will be the reclamation projects of the future and an opportunity to get it right.

Mining company BMC Minerals is already on board with the idea of a native plant nursery for industry, contributing $35,000 for a feasibility study of the project (the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency contributed another $80,000, while the community of Ross River kicked in the rest, but declined to share the total amount).

BMC’s Kudz Ze Kayah project, a proposed open-pit and underground mine roughly 115 kilometres south of Ross River, is working its way through the environmental assessment process right now. Noel said the company has expressed interest in buying seeds or seedlings, though nothing has been confirmed and prices haven’t been set.

“We’re not looking to do charity here,”  Noel said. “We are looking to create a business that is profitable, that gets us involved in a meaningful and sustainable way. We’re responding to an opportunity, more than anything, and we’re going to do everything we can to incorporate what the community needs and wants.”

A side project to address food security

Like much of the North, food prices are high in Ross River, Inkster said. The grocery store relies on truckloads of food making their way up from the south and any delay en route can mean bare shelves and spoiled produce.

There is a seasonal greenhouse in Ross River, capable of yielding some fresh produce, Noel said, but they hope to increase that capacity through the nursery project.

Once the nursery is established, the idea is it will bankroll the construction of a hydroponic system for food production, built within shipping containers. This would offer year-round access to fresh food, but could be a long way off, Noel said, possibly three years down the road.

Fix the environment first, then reap the rewards — that’s the idea behind the whole project.

Next steps for the native plant nursery

Dena Cho is looking at the ins and outs of financing the roughly $1-million project to bring it to fruition. Drawing on recommendations in the feasibility study, they’re also sketching out different options for the scale of the project, and partnerships with other Yukon First Nations.

It could take roughly two years to produce the quantity of seeds and seedlings required to follow through with remediation efforts, Noel said. But they’ll hold off on propagation until they have confirmed clients on board.

“We’re working to identify some fall season clients,” Noel said. “If we know we have the right clients, we might be able to start our project this fall, but it’s very ambitious and very unlikely at this point in time, especially with the coronavirus.”

Whether those clients will come forward in such uncertain times is hard to say, but the need for plants, built for Yukon’s environment, will only increase in the coming years as remediation plans move ahead at large, abandoned mine sites, the Yukon Research Centre noted in its 2017 report.

The people here want to nurse the local environment back to health, turning the page on operators that have scarred the land and left.

“The community of Ross River has seen some of the most egregious remediation and contamination sites in the Yukon,” Noel said. “There’s a real long history of things not being done the proper way.”


Julien Gignac Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for writing about Indigenous and environmental issues. He’s worked at several newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and, most recently, Yukon News, where he covered politics. He likes a good landscape. Julien’s position at The Narwhal is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.


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