While the cleanup of the abandoned Faro mine could release a “carbon bomb,” the project may move ahead but on the condition emissions are offset, according to a new report from the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. 

And not just some emissions. All of them.

But how?

The board’s draft screening report, published earlier this month, lists possibilities like planting trees, creating wetlands, using electric vehicles, harnessing renewable energy or purchasing carbon offset credits.

Without these, the board is warning the cleanup could emit so much carbon dioxide that it would undermine the Yukon government’s broader efforts to reduce territorial emissions as a whole.

Located about 200 kilometres northeast of Whitehorse, Faro was once the largest open pit, lead-zinc mine in the world, operating for nearly 30 years. Then, in 1998, when its owners declared bankruptcy, it was abandoned. Now, the Faro mine complex is one of Canada’s most contaminated sites, with 260 million tonnes of waste rock — enough to cover downtown Whitehorse 90 metres deep, according to the federal government.

The cleanup itself could be a dirty job, potentially increasing the territory’s total emissions between 30 and 46 per cent, every year, the report states.

Land clearing — like slash and burn — and carbon produced by vehicles account for about 89 per cent of the project’s total emissions, the report states.

Data will need to be collected to make offsetting plans work, so the board recommends implementing an emissions tracking and monitoring system. Every two years, audits will also need to be undertaken by an independent body.

A staffer with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, which leads and finances the project, said in a written statement the department is reviewing the board’s report and will respond formally afterward.

What about the Yukon gov’t’s plan to reduce emissions?

The board states in its report that emissions produced during the 15-year cleanup phase are of “substantial magnitude.”

That’s against the backdrop of the Yukon government’s plan to reduce territorial emissions by 45 per cent by the end of the decade, though mining — including mine remediation projects — isn’t factored into the target. 

The report appears to put it bluntly: the project will “hinder” those aspirations anyway.

“Increases in GHG emissions for a sustained period of 15 years, it being a singular project markedly contributing at the territorial scale and said emissions substantially altering territorial emission levels leads the [executive committee] to determine that effects to climate change at the territorial level are significant,” the report states.

The Yukon government pledged to establish what it calls “intensity-based targets” — based upon the amount of emissions produced per unit of production — by the end of 2022. 

However, the targets aren’t yet in place.

What Yukoners have instead is a proposal that “the mining sector to reduce 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production by 2035,” according to a report released by the government following a public engagement process. 

The board states that it remains to be seen how emissions generated by the Faro project will be managed by the territory.

‘Carbon bomb’

Jaime Kneen, the national program co-lead of Mining Watch Canada, calls the projected emissions a “carbon bomb,” not easily offset. 

And the proposed plan to do that, he said, “is, at best, a limited and risky endeavour.”

“I think it is clearly going to be a handful, and I suspect that even if you’re aiming to offset all those emissions, you’d be lucky to get part way there, I think, in reality.

“I think, you know, the classic offsets, especially at the scale we’re talking about, are just not practical,” Kneen added. 

“Are there aspects that can be redesigned or done differently?”

Still, Lewis Rifkind, the mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, is hopeful.

He calls the move to counteract emissions precedent-setting — something his organization has “been screaming for for years.”

“Some of these things will work well, some of them won’t,” he said, “but at least we’re trying them, and we’re finally seeing them in written format that a mining-related project is going to try and do this.”

The 15-year cleanup period will be followed by 10 years of care and maintenance. But monitoring and work to keep the site stable will continue, the board says, forever.

The board has launched a public comment period on its draft screening report. That closes on April 19.

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