Bundled rock is seen in front of the former Giant Mine mill. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A team leading the multi-billion-dollar cleanup of Yellowknife’s Giant Mine is coming up against a shortage of northern workers and apprentices.
The issue was brought up at the Giant Mine Remediation Project’s annual public forum in Yellowknife on Wednesday and a city council meeting on Monday.
At the public forum, Andrei Torianski, the project’s socio-economic manager, shared metrics on northern and Indigenous employment. Since 2017, he said Indigenous employees have worked on average 21 percent of labour hours, while northerners have worked an average 45 percent of hours.
Both measures fall short of the project’s targets, as the CBC previously reported. The target for Indigenous employment is 25 to 35 percent, and the target for northern employment is 55 to 70 percent.
Graeme Clinton, a director of the Giant Mine Oversight Board – an independent body that monitors the cleanup – has said demand for services required to complete the remediation currently outstrips the NWT’s supply, limiting the territory’s ability to benefit from economic opportunities the project brings.
Remediating the contaminated mine site is expected to cost $4.38 billion. The cleanup plan involves demolishing the old townsite, filling pits, removing contaminated soil, building a new water treatment plant and freezing 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust underground, along with other tasks.
Work on the site’s remediation began in 2021 and is scheduled to continue until 2038. For each year of the project’s lifetime, the Giant Mine Oversight Board estimates the project team will spend roughly $240 million.
After the project team presented an update on remediation to Yellowknife city councillors, Councillor Tom McLennan asked for the team’s response to the CBC’s article.
Natalie Plato, deputy director of the remediation project, said she agreed with the oversight board’s analysis.
“We’ve always known that there are going to be challenges getting local people to do the work,” she said.
In 2019, the Giant Mine Remediation Project released a strategy to maximize benefits to northerners and Indigenous peoples. Part of the strategy involves providing opportunities for employment, training and procurement.
However, the project team does not hire individuals to do the work, Torianski noted on Monday. Parsons, a private company and the project’s main construction manager, contracts out the work.
One tool used to incentivize Indigenous employment, training and procurement is a financial bonus for contractors who provide competitive commitments, Torianski said. Otherwise, he said, a financial penalty is deducted.
Another tool is the Procurement Strategy for Indigenous Business, which restricts bidding on contracts to Indigenous businesses in Canada if there are Indigenous businesses that can do the work. In the future, Torianski said, the project team is looking to restrict bidding to businesses in the project’s contract area.
As of December 2022, Parsons had issued 64 contracts with a value of $189 million, Torianski said. “And out of that value, 84 percent went to northern companies.”
Although the project has been successful in contracting work out to Indigenous businesses, Plato said, challenges arise when it comes to labour.
Speaking about northern and Indigenous employment metrics on Wednesday, Torianski noted there’s “definitely room for improvement.”
“We do that through capacity building and training,” he said.
The project team has committed to providing one apprenticeship and a scholarship for each year of the remediation project’s lifetime, he said.
Recently, the team signed a community benefits agreement with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, committing to provide a $5,000 scholarship annually to the First Nation as well as $500,000 annually to support Dechı̨ ta Nàowo, a Yellowknives Dene-run training organization.
Apprentices ‘hard to come by’
Both McLennan and a member of the public at Wednesday’s forum pointed out that the target for apprenticeships seems low.
In Monday’s council meeting, Erika Nyyssonen, senior advisor working on the project on behalf of the GNWT, said the project team has looked for ways to encourage Indigenous capacity building and engagement in the economy through the remediation.
Funding is available to support capacity building through a federal-territorial partnership, she said, and Aurora College is putting together a proposal to develop northern technician and remediation monitoring programs.
The hope is that, in the next couple of years, students would come through those programs and be able to participate in remediation work, she said – not only at Giant Mine but also in future cleanup projects.
“There’s a lot,” she said. “We have about $7 billion-worth of opportunities coming up in remediation across the territories.”
In Wednesday’s public forum, Torianski said the team is committed to reviewing targets annually and seeing if there are opportunities to increase them. But he said apprentices have been hard to come by.
Aaron Braumberger, Parsons’ socioeconomic development manager, said competition among companies for apprentices is high.
“It’s been very challenging for Parsons to attract apprentices,” he said.
Adding to the challenge is the seasonal nature of the remediation work. “Companies are a little reluctant to commit to the apprentice if their contract is only for a few months in the summer,” he said.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of work to be done at the mine between now and 2038.
In 2023, the team intends to continue taking down buildings, cleaning up non-hazardous debris and starting prep for a “state-of-the-art” water treatment plant, among other work, Plato said.
Several large projects lie ahead in the longer term, including the remediation of Baker Creek, which will involve scraping sediment from the bottom of the channel and widening it so that it can better handle flooding. Contamination will also have to be dealt with at the creek’s outflow, where Yellowknife’s sailing club and a public boat launch are located.
The plan is to scrape contaminated sediment out from the area near the sailing club, fill it back in with clean material and build a new wharf. Then, the same thing will be done at the public boat launch. The team has committed to keeping one boat launch open throughout the work.
They also intend to place an engineered cover in public use areas and along the shoreline of Yellowknife Bay to protect swimmers and recreational users from any contaminated sediment that may be in the area.
To give people a sense of what the site will look like when the work is complete, members of the public were invited to take a virtual tour at the public forum and at Yellowknife’s federal Greenstone building on Wednesday afternoon.
Through a “mixed-reality” headset, wearers could see holograms of the site projected in the room. Some showed tabletop maps or the maze of underground tunnels. Others displayed what the area will look like from different viewpoints in 2040, according to an artist’s rendition.
With so much work still ahead, many contracts are coming down the pipeline.
“The big granddaddy of them all is the water treatment plant,” Braumberger said in Wednesday’s meeting.
The timing and scope of that contract may have sidelined some northern bidders, however. Last week, Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, said in the legislature that the federal government was accepting bids but the contract was originally supposed to be tendered next year.
“Once the bid came out, it became clear the size and scope of the project was much larger than expected by some proponents. The uncertainty in details and change in timing means local proponents may not be able to prepare and participate,” she said.
Although the project’s annual budgets provide a general idea of work categories and timing, Cleveland said the information isn’t detailed enough, adding that northern businesses need more information to be ready to bid on work.
“Building the capacity for benefit retention needs certainty,” she said.
“That certainty comes from information sharing between governments and the industry that it ultimately wants to participate.”