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Robertson headframe may be doomed as city hits legal block

Yellowknife’s Robertson headframe may be doomed.

On Monday, the City of Yellowknife revealed it cannot, legally, step in to save the threatened headframe of the old Con Mine.

The city had previously been working to take on ownership of the red-topped headframe, which has been a Yellowknife icon since 1977.

However, officials now say they have hit a legal roadblock.

Newmont Mining Corporation, the headframe’s owner since 2008, says it will only agree to transfer ownership if the city legally indemnifies it from all financial or environmental liabilities – in other words, absolving Newmont of blame should something go wrong in future.

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The territorial government has advised the city that, legally, a municipal government cannot make that guarantee.

Officials now suggest the city will be forced to back down, with no legal alternative.

Read: History of mining in the NWT, from Mining Heritage

“This is our unfortunate recommendation,” said the city’s director of public works and engineering, Chris Greencorn.

“There are folks here that wish to preserve the structure and we’ve really done our best to do what we can with this.

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“We’re Yellowknifers too, and we don’t want to see this thing come down as much as the next person. But unfortunately it’s also our job to weigh all the options and provide the best recommendation we have.”

The news infuriated Walt Humphries, president of the NWT Mining Heritage Society, who has led a campaign to preserve the landmark.

Humphries told councillors: “Imagine a world where a visitor comes to town and they ask, ‘Where have all the headframes gone?’

“Are we really prepared to tell them that a company was willing to give the city a magnificent headframe … and the city was just so stupid, inept, incompetent and lazy that they couldn’t be bothered? Are you prepared to tell them that the people who live in this city actively go out of their way to destroy their own culture and heritage?

“We’re still getting the same answer we got on day one: destroy the headframe. I honestly don’t think administration has ever taken this project seriously or tried to move it forward.”

Humphries queried why the city had not hit a similar issue with a warehouse on the same site as the headframe, though city administration later suggested taking ownership of the warehouse was equally ‘remote’.

Councillor Niels Konge suggested that, given the territorial government’s conclusion that the city had no legal power to help, there may yet be a solution in asking the territory to intervene.

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“We’re basically a middle man,” observed Konge. “Why not go straight to the man?

“Walt, he likes going after the government. Let’s go to the next level, Walt. Let’s give the MLAs some heck, make them work for their money, too. It sounds like our hands are tied, because we have to ask our big brother ‘would you please’. We can’t do it, but our big brother should be able to do it.

“Is that an avenue we should be going down? Can [the territorial government] ask Newmont to not take that structure down?”

City administrator Dennis Kefalas said that was an “excellent question” and an option that could be explored.

“We can determine, between the government and the water boards, what stipulations could be changed or made in order to allow the government itself to take over the structure,” said Kefalas.

Con Mine
Con Mine site in May 2010. Photo: Scott Lough

However, councillor Adrian Bell was less convinced that the territory would be prepared to help.

“While I concede there may be a couple of avenues, those seem to me like very, very small percentage options [in terms of probability of success],” said Bell.

“It’s unfortunate that we had a lot of folks with their hearts set on something happening here – on the city finding a way to do this – and had we simply gotten more serious with our negotiations five years ago, we would have found out that this wasn’t an option and we would have saved everybody a whole lot of time.

“For that, I apologize on behalf of myself – I think as councillors we should accept some responsibility for that, and I think that’s unfortunate. This is disheartening, but it doesn’t seem like we have much of an option at this point.”

Download: City’s full report on Robertson headframe (pdf, p53 onwards)

Councillors will take up the headframe issue at a meeting with territorial MLAs on Friday.

The Robertson headframe formed part of the Con Mine, the territory’s longest-running gold mine until it closed in 2003, but is set for demolition as part of Newmont’s responsibility to clean up the mine site.

Greencorn says the conditions of Newmont’s licence mean it cannot simply leave the headframe standing – either ownership must be transferred, or it must be destroyed.

In June last year, a rally and petition to save the headframe encouraged the city to explore options for its preservation.

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