Yukon First Nations blast gov't, industry after 'catastrophic' slide at Eagle mine

Some Yukon First Nations are blasting the territorial government and the mining industry, in the wake of this week's major ore slide at the Eagle gold mine near Mayo, Yukon.

Chief Dawna Hope of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun (NND) said the "disaster" at the mine site threatens her community and others downstream from the mine. The Eagle mine, owned by Toronto-based Victoria Gold Inc., sits on NND's traditional territory.

"We're concerned of the health of the land, the water, the fish and the animals, not only for the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, but also for our relations downstream, and their environment," she said.

There have been few details so far about the extent of the damage at the Eagle mine site after a failure at the heap leach facility on Monday caused a slide. On Wednesday, the territorial government said the slide had caused ore to "spill over the embankment at the base of the heap facility," and had damaged some mine infrastructure.

Heap leaching is a process involving a cyanide solution to extract gold from stacked layers of ore. The failure at the Eagle mine has raised concerns that cyanide has escaped containment and made its way into waterways.

The territorial government has said that it's been taking water samples and that the drinking water in the community of Mayo is safe and at low risk of being affected.

Hope, however, says she's not reassured by what's happened so far.

"So far, I guess you can say that we are not satisfied with industry and public governments' response to this catastrophic event," she said on Thursday.

"We do not agree with the public statements made by media thus far that appear, in our view, to be downplaying the seriousness of what has happened and how this will have long-term impacts."

The heap leach facility at Victoria Gold's Eagle mine in central Yukon.
A view of the heap leach facility at Victoria Gold's Eagle mine, as pictured on the company's website, sometime before the incident this week. (Victoria Gold)

She described the slide as "shocking in size," and said her First Nation is doing its own water sampling and hiring its own independent advisors to help plan its response.

"We are ramping up, we are gathering the advisors we need. Our staff has been out there on site taking samples since day one," she said.

She promised a formal statement in the coming days, along with a "detailed accounting of all the early warning signs which our elders had warned us about."

Premier Ranj Pillai said on Wednesday that his government had been in "constant conversations" with NND since Monday, and that he was focused "first and foremost" on the community. He also promised a technical briefing for media, which is scheduled to happen on Friday morning with at least nine officials participating.

"We have not been invited to participate in that event," said Hope.

First Nation calls for public inquiry

Also on Thursday, the chief of the White River First Nation (WRFN) based in Beaver Creek, Yukon, issued a damning statement about the incident at Eagle mine, and calling for a public inquiry "into why this disaster took place."

"WRFN stands in full support of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation, and all Yukoners in hoping for both the best possible resolution for this immediate crisis, and a path forward to ensure that this never happens again in the Yukon," reads the statement.

WRFN Chief Bessie Chasse said the potential impacts of the mine accident are "incredibly alarming."

Chief Bessie Chasse of the White River First Nation in the Yukon, in September 2022, at Pickhandle Lake.
Chief Bessie Chasse of the White River First Nation in the Yukon, in 2022. She called the incident this week at Eagle mine 'incredibly alarming.' (Paul Tukker/CBC)

She also said the incident shows why her First Nation closely scrutinizes any proposed mining projects in the region, to ensure companies are "accountable for their plans and activities."

"Too often with mines like Faro, Mount Nansen, Minto and Yukon Zinc we have seen companies complain about slow regulatory processes and then leave massive environmental issues behind them, that Yukoners and all taxpayers have to suffer the consequences of," Chasse said in a statement.

"The Yukon government is too focused on approving mines without thinking through the implications of those approvals."