Guest blog by Kevin O’Reilly, Alternatives North,
The Giant Mine operated at the edge of the city of Yellowknife,
Northwest Territories, from 1948 to 2004. As the gold-bearing
ore was processed, the mine generated a toxic by-product,
arsenic trioxide – a proven non-threshold carcinogen. For the
first three years of operations, the arsenic trioxide went
straight up the stack and then came down on the surrounding
land and water, killing at least one Dene child and local milk
cows. The family of the dead child received $750 as
Rather than stop the toxic mining operation, the government
gave tacit approval to storing the arsenic trioxide
underground. There are now 237,000 tonnes of it stored in mined
out areas and some purpose-built chambers. Picture a 10-storey
building and then multiply that by 7.5 times. That’s the amount
of arsenic trioxide stored underground. It’s probably enough to
kill the entire human race several times over. Arsenic trioxide
is very soluble in water and it is leaching out of the
underground storage areas, although it is being pumped out and
treated as part of the overall minewater management.
Following a horrendous
labour dispute, the mine went into receivership in 1999 and
is now a public liability. The federal and territorial
governments (all of us as taxpayers) are on the hook for the
remediation. A remediation plan was finally developed in 2005
with limited public involvement. Despite a recommendation from
its technical advisors to subject the plan to an environmental
assessment, it took a mandatory referral from the City of
Yellowknife to send the plan to an open public review process.
The assessment process ended in June of this year with the
release of a report by the Mackenzie Valley Environmental
Impact Review Board.
What’s the government’s plan? Essentially, freeze the arsenic
trioxide underground, forever. No long-term funding, no ongoing
research and development into something more permanent, no plan
for perpetual care of the site.
Despite claims from the government that there was widespread
public support for its plan, not one person came forward in
favour of it during the environmental assessment. The
government wrongly concluded that public concern was with the
existing condition of the site, not its inadequate plan to
simply stabilize the site. Many of us would prefer an option
where the government actually works with the community to
implement a remediation plan that includes freezing as an
interim solution, independent oversight, and ongoing research
and development into something more permanent.
The environmental assessment dragged on for five long years,
largely due to government bungling in providing submissions and
responding to information requests. The project managers had
largely boxed themselves in by going forward to the federal
funders with a remediation plan that did not have a social
licence. Little progress was made on key issues like perpetual
care, independent oversight, long-term funding, or ongoing
research and development. As it was, total project costs were
only revealed after the public hearing, following an Access to
Information Request: an estimated $903 million – and more than
likely to increase.
To the credit of the environmental assessment process and the
Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board that carried
it out, an excellent final report with twenty-six
recommendations for binding measures was released on June 20,
2013. The governments’ approach and plan were largely rejected
in favour of a hundred-year timeframe and requirements for a
legally-binding agreement to establish independent
environmental oversight, ongoing research and development, and
much more. The report lays out a solid and collaborative path
forward for the remediation to begin.
The report has received widespread praise, including a
unanimous motion of support from Yellowknife City Council. The
Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the North Slave Metis Alliance,
Yellowknife Members of the Legislative Assembly, and the local
MP, Denis Bevington, have all indicated their support. A motion
of support from the Legislative Assembly of the NWT was also
passed this week.
This is one of those rare modern day environmental assessments
that actually worked. It has incorporated public and Aboriginal
input and in doing so gained a broad base of support.
The fate of the Giant Mine and the remediation plan now lies
with federal and territorial Ministers. The reasonable next
step is for the Ministers to accept the report and its
recommendations, which would then become binding conditions on
the project moving forward. If the report and its
recommendations are rejected, the whole project goes off to a
higher level of scrutiny that will include an evaluation of
alternatives – something that no one really wants at this
point. The Ministers could also refer matters back to the
Review Board, but it’s not clear what that would really do. The
last option is to enter into a murky world of “consultations”
to change or modify the report and its recommendations into
something that the ministers will accept. We are now onwards of
four months since the report was released. Will reason prevail?
Giant Mine: Historical Summary. Memorial University
Professors John Sandlos and Arn Keeling. June 2012.
Technical Report for the Giant Mine Remediation Project
Environmental Assessment. Alternatives North. July 2012.
Report of Environmental Assessment, Giant Mine Remediation
Project. Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review
Board. June 20, 2013.
Giant Mine Remediation Environmental Assessment
Timeline. Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review
Board. June 2013.
Closing Comments on the Giant Mine Remediation Project
Environmental Assessment from the Developer. Aboriginal
Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and Government of the
Northwest Territories. October 12, 2012.
Letter from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Support of
the Review Board Report. August 2, 2013.
Letter from the North Slave Metis Alliance in Support of the
Review Board Report. August 22, 2013.
Letter from the City of Yellowknife in Support of the Review
Board Report. August 6, 2013.
Letter from Three Yellowknife Members of the NWT Legislative
Assembly in Support of the Review Board Report. August 7, 2013.
Draft NWT Legislative Assembly Hansard. October 21, 2013. Pp.