Canadian Northwest Territories : Water treatment might not be possible at Prairie Creek Mine during COVID-19

The CEO of NorZinc Ltd., the company behind the Prairie Creek Mine in the Northwest Territories, said he is worried about how to transport his workers to and from the mine site to conduct mandatory water treatment work this summer while still complying with the territory’s physical distancing requirements.

A May 11 memo sent to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board from the NorZinc site team outlines several concerns from staff, including the “unreliability” of air-only transportation during a medical emergency and the difficulty of practicing physical distancing on a small charter plane, where passengers will only be 80 centimetres apart at most.

“This year, we have to go in to continue water treatment but we’re worried about the safety of our employees in doing that,” Don MacDonald, the CEO of NorZinc, told CBC News. “It’s now an ongoing thing — we look at this now on a daily basis.”

The majority of NorZinc’s workers will come from Fort Simpson, Nahanni Butte and Fort Liard, N.W.T., MacDonald said.

According to the memo, workers who arrive at Prairie Creek will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 by NorZinc staff. Mining workers that do not show symptoms of coronavirus, it notes, are exempt from the territory’s mandatory 14-day self-isolation period in a regional centre.

There are zero cases [in the Dehcho] so we’re very concerned about making sure that everybody is very safe from the risks of COVID-19.– Don MacDonald, CEO of NorZinc Ltd.

Other changes are coming to the work site, like separate washrooms created for N.W.T. and non-N.W.T. workers, closing the worker’s self-serve buffet and installing two handwashing sinks in the dining area. These changes are on top of the physical distancing guidelines recommended by the territorial government.

MacDonald said these precautions are being put in place to protect local staff from the Dehcho during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are zero cases [in the Dehcho] so we’re very, very concerned about making sure that everybody is very safe from the risks of COVID-19,” MacDonald said.

The company is also looking at how to bring up two supervisors, from Saskatchewan and Texas respectively, to the territory to lead the company’s water treatment work.

The supervisors have experience reopening the site after the winter and running a small camp of workers.

MacDonald said he is hoping to bring them to the N.W.T. by mid-June.

Compliance still required during pandemic

It is unclear what repercussions the company could face if it can’t fulfill its water treatments, MacDonald continued.

“I can only think that, if we can’t do it because of COVID-19, that there would be some sort of exemption,” MacDonald said. “If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”

NorZinc started underground exploration work at the mine site in 2006, MacDonald said, and it has been treating old mine water to regulate its zinc content since then.

There has been little evidence of any adverse effects on the environment from the old mine water to date, MacDonald wrote in a May 7 letter addressed to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.

Joslyn Oosenbrug, a spokesperson for the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told CBC that monitoring the water quality at the Prairie Creek Mine site is one of the conditions for the mine’s water license.

Oosenbrug confirmed to CBC that NorZinc has already told the department that they are “unlikely” to mobilize staff to the mine site until early to mid-June because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter dated April 23, the territorial government asks all water license holders to adapt their water monitoring by enforcing physical distancing protocols.

“Compliance with … monitoring plans is still required, even in the midst of a global pandemic,” the letter reads.

COVID-19 not expected to delay mine’s timeline

The Prairie Creek Mine, located in Nahanni National Park, N.W.T., is estimated to pull in $1.2 billion over its 15-year mine life and create 330 jobs in the Dehcho region once it is operational.

The mine was slated to begin operations in 2021, but due to a delay in the initial construction of a winter access road, production has been moved back to early 2023.

MacDonald said he does not expect the COVID-19 pandemic to delay the mine’s development timeline.

NorZinc is also hoping to conduct an exploration of the site and run its annual training program by the end of the summer, MacDonald said.

Any potential impact on the Prairie Creek Mine and its ongoing projects will be reassessed on a month-to-month basis, he added.

Anna Desmarais, CBC News

Anna Desmarais, CBC News

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