Leaders from Yukon's Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation got a tour of Goldcorp's Coffee Gold project near Dawson City this week — and so far, they like what they've seen.
The exploration camp at Coffee Creek, about 130 kilometres south of Dawson City, is a busy place these days, with crews already working in shifts 24-hours a day.
In a few years, it could be even busier — Goldcorp is proposing to open a large-scale gold mine by 2021, employing hundreds of people. The project is still under review by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB).
The Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation is now on board with the project. Last April, it signed a "collaboration agreement" with Goldcorp, which includes a number of benefits for the First Nation — such as jobs, contracts, and training for First Nation citizens.
It also outlines environmental protection commitments.
Earlier, the First Nation had complained that Goldcorp was ignoring its concerns, and was trying to push the project forward too quickly.
Now, Chief Roberta Joseph says she's confident Goldcorp is hearing their concerns.
"One of the different things about this project is that it's more environmentally sustainable in terms of not having a tailings pond," said Joseph.
"Having new and innovative projects like this provides for a much better environment in the end."
One selling point has been that Coffee Gold will not create toxic tailings ponds, as it will use something called a heap leach pad — where gold is separated from ore by means of cyanide.
Goldcorp describes this process as a "closed loop" system, which has assuaged the First Nations' concerns about local rivers.
Coffee Gold's reclamation is also scheduled to begin halfway through the mine's lifetime with different sections mined then cleaned up as production continues. "First and foremost, we want to make sure the project is environmentally sustainable," Joseph said.
"And we need to have a clear understanding of the environmental, cultural and heritage impacts of the project, ensuring that we have a good understanding of it, to ensure we're making good informed decisions."
Touring the exploration site
On Tuesday, Goldcorp opened its exploration site to local media and the leadership of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in.
Reporters were flown to Dawson City, where Chief Joseph and a representative of the First Nation's renewable resource council got on board. The group then flew to Coffee Creek in a chartered plane (CBC paid for a spot on the plane).
The mining company then took people in a helicopter to the site of gold deposits where exploration work is happening.
One on-site demonstration was of a device called a Mud Hen, a stack of filters used to deal with construction or mining waste. The units cost about $20,000 each and can separate muddy or grey water into something far more manageable after it's been used in cutting rock.
"I do like the commitment to recycling the water," Joseph said after watching a demonstration of the how the machine works.
Flying from Whitehorse to the Coffee Gold project provides an overhead view of other, smaller placer mining operations near Dawson — some of them a source of friction with the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation.
The First Nation has frequently asked the Yukon government to reconsider the Placer Mining Act, saying environmental reviews do not sufficiently take into account the cumulative effects of placer mines.
Joseph has said Tr'ondek Hwech'in citizens are worried about run-off in local waters. She also points out that placer gold royalties in Yukon amount to a pittance — royalty rates set in the early 1900s bring in less than $100 a year in total, to the First Nation.
Company foresees billions' worth of gold
Chris Cormier, general manager for Coffee Gold, expects the mine to be in production by 2021.
The company believes there could be up to two million ounces of recoverable gold which would supply a healthy profit — despite spending more than $500 million to acquire the property in 2016.
Such a volume of gold, at current prices, would amount to about $2 billion.
"We'll continue to produce for ten to 12 years with this particular facility," Cormier said. "We're looking, within the construction phase, we'll have 650 direct and indirect jobs.
"And then when we get into operations, about 350 people, between the site and our offices in Whitehorse and Dawson City."
Cormier says the agreement with Tr'ondek Hwech'in is important to the project.
He also says there's value in being such a big partner. Goldcorp — one of the world's biggest gold producers — has deep pockets and experience getting projects to market.
Local jobs have been another selling point for the Tr'ondek Hwech'in, as about 20 First Nation citizens are now employed at Coffee Creek — about one quarter of the current staff.
Albert Dupont is one Tr'ondek Hwech'in citizen working as camp support. He said he works 12 hours a day, two weeks at a time before returning home to Dawson City. He's proud that his First Nation is a partner.
"I'm happy they're involved because it's our land, or so I'm told," he said with a short laugh.
"For me, it's part of life. I work out here to make money. In the long run, it'll help the whole band out and all the people out. That's a good thing," he said.