A proposed new quarry to be constructed near Vee Lake cleared its first obstacle on Monday night as Yellowknife city councillors approved two bylaws related to land transfer.
The quarry is controversial. A thousand people in the past week signed a petition opposing its construction, in part on the grounds that a nearby trail and vantage point at Ranney Hill would be spoiled.
Det’on Cho Construction, the quarry’s proponent and part of the Yellowknives Dene’s economic wing, says the project has significant economic benefits and measures will be taken to reduce the disruption it causes.
Det’on Cho says the quarry is needed to help supply gravel and rock to the Giant Mine cleanup project, which will be taking place nearby for the next decade.
The plan was initially brought to council in February and the two bylaws in question had already passed two of their three required readings before Monday night’s council meeting.
At that meeting, councillors heard presentations both for and against the quarry before voting unanimously to approve both bylaws at their third and final reading.
The bylaws authorize the City of Yellowknife to acquire land from the territorial government and then lease the same land to Det’on Cho Construction for the quarry.
However, the process of approving the quarry is by no means over.
Receiving approval for the land acquisition from the territorial government may take many months. After that, Det’on Cho would have to seek a development permit – returning the process to councillors for further approval.
‘A mess to clean up a mess’
Resident Ryan Silke, author of a petition against the quarry, urged councillors on Monday not to let the proposal proceed any further.
“There is significant public concern from residents of Yellowknife,” Silke said, presenting to council.
The Ranney Hill trail, Silke said, “is one of the few established hiking trails outside the city boundary and has recently been upgraded with signposts, a parking lot, and gravel fill to make it more accessible.
“After all of this work to invest in one of the few accessible hiking trails outside of the city, are we as a city prepared to ruin it? It would be an embarrassment to the City’s identity as a wilderness tourism destination.”
Discussing the proposed use of the quarry to supply the Giant Mine remediation, Silke said: “We should not make a hole to fill a hole. We should not make a mess to clean up a mess.”
A graphic by Yellowknife artist Alison McCreesh outlines residents’ objections to the proposed quarry.
In a sustained and pointed exchange with Councillor Shauna Morgan, Silke said quarry would ruin the experience of visiting Ranney Hill.
“How many hills do we have in the Yellowknife area?” he asked.
“Of course we need new quarries. Let’s do this responsibly. Let’s find alternative spots.
“I want to preserve a nice nature area. That’s my only concern.”
Silke and others add they are concerned haul trucks on the Vee Lake Road will be a safety hazard.
Use the Giant site?
One of the biggest areas of contention is whether Giant Mine’s cleanup actually needs the rock at all.
Earlier on Monday, presenting to councillors at a separate meeting, representatives of the Giant Mine project said a smaller amount of rock is needed than had earlier been suggested – and it could all come from within the Giant Mine site.
Natalie Plato, the project’s spokesperson, said the Giant team still needs to find approximately 730,000 cubic metres of rock and gravel.
Plato said it was perfectly possible for a contractor like Det’on Cho to quarry that material from a location within the current Giant Mine site. Testing of the Giant site for appropriate locations is ongoing, as the rock used cannot be acid-generating or contain high arsenic levels.
A map shows the site of the proposed quarry. Yellowknife is to the south.
The Giant Mine project has, in the past, emphasized its intent to minimize disturbance outside the Giant site itself. (Silke noted this in his presentation, stating: “The proponent’s proposal would absolutely create new disturbance.”)
Plato did not, however, come close to ruling out the use of the Vee Lake quarry if it existed.
Asked about Det’on Cho’s proposed quarry, Plato said: “We have heard from Det’on Cho that [the Vee Lake quarry] could be an economic development opportunity, so that could be a reason why we would go that way, as well.”
Chief Ernest Betsina, presenting to councillors immediately following Silke on Monday night, did concede there was no guarantee Giant Mine’s cleanup team would actually want the quarry’s rock and award Det’on Cho the contract.
“At this point, we have no certainty of demand and have never asserted that we have,” Betsina said. (Paul Gruner, the Det’on Cho Corporation’s chief executive, said there would be other uses for the rock. Gruner said other quarries are nearing depletion and the Vee Lake rock is not acid-bearing, a significant improvement on other sources.)
However, Betsina also stressed the roughly 20 positions created by the quarry “would be incredible for my community.”
In his presentation, Betsina expressed surprise that residents were objecting “so early” in the process.
“Det’on Cho has engaged a team of environmental and social consultants so we can understand the aspects of this project that go beyond the financial,” he said. “Not allowing us to go through the process of review and consultation before jumping to conclusions seems premature.”
Betsina dismissed the concern about haul trucks and safety, saying to bring rock to Giant from farther afield would simply worsen environmental and safety concerns. Det’on Cho has pledged to widen the Vee Lake Road and carry out other safety measures if the project goes ahead.
In a robust response to residents complaining about their views from Ranney Hill being ruined, Betsina said he could “empathize.”
“For generations, the Yellowknives Dene enjoyed uninterrupted views from points all over what is now the City of Yellowknife,” he said. “Most of the people in this room live and work on parcels of land that started being transformed less than 100 years ago.”
Concluding, Betsina said the Yellowknives Dene wanted “active involvement” in the swift and effective remediation of Giant Mine.
“This project is an opportunity to take the term reconciliation from an abstract concept to a concrete deliverable,” he said.
“This project has the potential to be an act of economic reconciliation.
“We want to be active participants in the cleanup of Giant Mine and the economic prosperity of Yellowknife. We have earned that right.”
A new Bristol Pit?
A motion from Morgan to reopen debate among councillors – unusual at third reading – failed with only Morgan and Councillor Rommel Silverio in support. Morgan had argued a surge in interest in the quarry proposal since second reading merited the extra discussion.
Councillor Niels Konge urged people to look at what he considered the bigger picture of the quarry’s potential future uses, referring in particular to opportunities for landfill.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, the city administrator, added other quarries within city limits had been successfully repurposed after rock extraction had ended. She gave dog walks at the sandpits and snowboarding at Bristol Pit as examples.
“This isn’t just about a quarry for 10 years. There are other opportunities there going forward,” said Konge. “If it’s just about a quarry and just about a few jobs right now, that’s pretty short-sighted.”
The process of transferring the land now moves to the territorial government.
“It could take months to hear back,” said Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty.
Correction: March 10, 2020 – 9:41 MT. This article initially stated “a thousand residents” had signed a petition opposing the quarry. The Det’on Cho Corporation, however, subsequently contended that many of the signatures shown are not those of local residents. The article has been corrected to more accurately reflect that while roughly 1,000 signatures were gathered, not all were from residents of the area.