The federal government is disputing claims made by a Yukon First Nation that work to clean up the Mount Nansen mine site is riddled with problems.
In a complaint filed to the Yukon Water Board last year, the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation (LSCFN) states its rights are being violated.
The First Nation singles out the federally-funded company tasked with cleaning up the site — the Mount Nansen Remediation Limited Partnership — and also trains the dispute at the territorial and federal governments, which the First Nation says are "in breach of their treaty obligations."
"Nearly a quarter-century after the Mount Nansen claims area closed, the surrounding waters remain polluted, undrinkable, and destructive rather than supportive of natural ecosystems, and the LSCFN citizens remain unable to meaningfully exercise their Aboriginal and treaty rights," the complaint states.
The Mount Nansen mine, once called an "embarassment to Canada" by a Yukon judge, produced silver and gold in the 1990s. The company, Toronto-based BYG Resources, quickly went bankrupt and abandoned the mine, which was then foisted onto the federal government.
The First Nation is raising its concerns because, it says, the mine site has yet to be remediated, and is leaching heavy metals into the environment, infringing Indigenous rights. As well, Mount Nansen Remediation's water licence expires in 2026.
The First Nation argues contamination in and around the site, about 45 kilometres west of Carmacks, Yukon, is increasing, more than 20 years after the mine was declared abandoned. It also states that work to keep the site stable is further harming the environment, hobbling reclamation and closure plans.
The application calls water treatment at the site "ineffective," with only five contaminants — including arsenic, zinc and ammonia — treated of more than two dozen.
The First Nation also accuses the company of routinely breaching its water licence for, among other things, not adequately monitoring aquatic effects, meeting effluent standards and failing to report certain water quality results.
It wants the water board to amend the company's water licence to require better monitoring and water treatment efforts.
Water board has no jurisdiction over issues raised, say feds
In a response submitted to the water board in December, the federal justice department states the remediation company is meeting the requirements of its water licence. It also says that the licence amendments the First Nation is calling for don't apply to care and maintenance activities now underway, but remediation, which will require a different licence.
The federal government also states the First Nation's concerns "reach well beyond" the project currently on site, and the corresponding licence.
"The board does not have the jurisdiction on this application, or perhaps at all, to resolve those concerns," the federal submission reads.
The First Nation wants compensation for losses, but the federal government dismisses that, saying there's no legal basis for granting that.
Jim Harrington, the director of the Mount Nansen Remediation, said the company is committed to working with the First Nation, and has been.
According to reports on the company's website, staff have met with LSCFN citizens a couple times last year, to, among other things, answer questions.
"The scale of the treatment system, the nature of the treatment system and the operation of that system is [sic] 100 per cent consistent with the licence we were given," Harrington told CBC News. "It's certainly not perfect, because it's an interim process."
Asked how the company has been working with the First Nation exactly, he said that has included looking at adding provisions to the existing licence.
"I don't think activities themselves have been degrading the site. I think, if anything, they've been making the site better.
"Water was just being pumped directly into the creek before."
The company has a remediation proposal now being screened by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. Harrington suspects it will take at least five years for the plan to be approved and improved by the decision bodies.
The water board declined to be interviewed by CBC News.
In an email to CBC News, Karen Clyde, the director of the board's secretariat, said the board hasn't seen a complaint like this before. That's because the application leverages the First Nation's modern treaty while pushing for a water licence amendment.
The water board secretariat has issued a tender to get a company to review the First Nation's dispute. Bids close on Feb. 19.
LSCFN, along with its lawyers, weren't available for comment. Nor was the Yukon government. Ottawa referred CBC News to its water board submission.
'The only animals we see around there are dead animals'
The First Nation's complaint to the water board says the Mount Nansen area traditionally served as a key hub for harvesting because the land was rich, providing sustenance to many people and animals for generations. Several parcels of the First Nation's settlement are in the area. One is only 500 metres downstream of the site.
In an affidavit included in the complaint, elder Rosalie Brown describes the devastation wrought by the mine.
Caribou and moose were once abundant. Ambling around was even the odd silvertip grizzly bear. Brown states she and her family used to drink straight from creeks, which she knew were clean because they were full of trout, grayling and other fish.
Then the major mine came along and polluted the water and those fish suffocated, Brown says.
"Now, often the only animals we see around there are dead animals ... We must go hours away from Mount Nansen to look for food that is safe to eat ... I will not gather medicines near those water bodies," reads her affidavit.
In another affidavit, Eric Fairclough — the former chief of the First Nation and now the director of lands and resources — also states he no longer harvests from the land, fearing contamination.
"Today, I would not harvest either small or large game or gather berries within four to five miles [roughly six to seven kilometres] of the mining activity at Mount Nansen," he states.
"There are very few animals left to harvest. Most of the caribou and moose have left the area. The ones that remain are often unhealthy and unsafe to eat. I have family members who recently harvested a moose there and reported that its liver was compromised and degraded in a way that they had never seen before."
Last year, the water board called a licence proceeding with all affected parties. The board also ordered the First Nation to file a response by Feb. 2. To date, one has yet to be submitted.