Yukon environmental assessor warns of delays over record number of assessments

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) is warning about delays as it faces staff shortages and a record-breaking number of assessments. (Alexandra Byers/CBC)

By Gabrielle Plonka · CBC News

Operators concerned about impact of delays on approvals

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) is warning about delays in service.

The board is responsible for doing environmental assessments of development projects in the Yukon and recommending to the territorial government whether projects should proceed, and under what conditions. In a notice published to its website late last week, it said it’s experiencing “organizational challenges” because of a record number of active assessments, many of which are extremely complex.

Delays should be expected at all stages of assessment, the board said, and not all projects will be assessed within the timelines required under the assessment act. Some proposals won’t be assigned to an assessor until staff are available.

“YESAB understands the widespread impacts if YESAB’s mandate is not achieved in a timely and predictable fashion,” the notice reads. “YESAB is currently reviewing its organizational structure and process with the aim of … implementing timely change.”

The notice says the issue will be revisited by May 31 and a new notice will be issued if necessary.

YESAB is currently reviewing 103 active projects, and 73 new projects have been submitted so far in 2024, according to Kent Bretzlaff, its executive director.

In an emailed response to questions, Bretzlaff would not share the expected delay or extension time for assessments, but said the board “will be sure to keep stakeholders informed about the progress.”

Bretzlaff also said an increased number of public submissions has added a level of complexity to “neutral assessments.”

YESAB currently has four board members and three vacancies. Late last year, vacancies threatened the board’s quorum because several members’ terms expired. Board members are nominated by the territorial government and Council of Yukon First Nations.

Delay ‘extremely concerning’ for operators

Unexpected delays can create big problems for mine operators, particularly those who are waiting to hire staff and plan for the short summer season, according to Allan Nixon, vice-president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

Delayed assessments will mean delayed permits and big issues finding investors. There may be smaller operations that have submitted proposals within a reasonable timeline, but will find out there’s nobody available to assess their project.

“We’re extremely concerned about the potential impact to our membership,” Nixon said. “It’s positive that they’ve obviously recognized the structural issue, and they’re taking measures to deal with it … It’s a serious issue that needs to get fixed very quickly.”

According to Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, YESAB did reach out to the society directly to warn about the delays.

Rifkind’s largest concern was that delays would impact the quality of assessments, but he said he was reassured otherwise.

“It sounds like the quality of the assessments won’t change, but the timing might, so from an environmental point of view, that’s acceptable,” Rifkind said.

Rifkind agreed this is a busy year for assessments, but suggested it might be YESAB’s responsibility to foresee and prepare for that.

“Some of these big projects are incredibly complicated with lots of technical issues,” Rifkind said. “But these don’t come out of the blue; everyone knew that these sorts of projects were slowly working their way through the system.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Makivvik launches climate adaptation strategy for Nunavik, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Alarming, above-average ice loss in Greenland due to rising temperatures, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Polar heat record. July average above 10°C, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Another year of shrinking glaciers predicted in Sweden’s Far North, CBC News

United States: Bursting ice dam in Alaska highlights risks of glacial flooding around the globe, The Associated Press

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