After a week-long public hearing, several groups with a stake in how Yellowknife’s Giant Mine clean-up proceeds say they object to the project’s request for a 20-year water licence.
From January 20 to 24, the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board heard feedback on the clean-up team’s application for a five-year land use permit and a 20-year water licence.
If granted, these licences will allow the massive $1-billion remediation project to begin “active closure” – freezing in place 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust, produced during the former gold mine’s 50 years of production.
Despite “great confidence” in the board and kind words for the remediation team, Alternatives North spokesperson Katharine Thomas said the environmental group could not support a 20-year water licence.
“With a remediation timeline of 10 years and funding for only 15 years, we remain unconvinced of the need for a licence of two decades,” Thomas said, adding that technological advances may mean freezing the dust in place may no longer be required in two decades.
Alternatives North seconded the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s caution that a two-decade licence set an unwanted precedent. Councillor William Lines, representing the Yellowknives Dene, said the First Nation disliked the precedent a 20-year licence could set for future mining projects making similar requests of the regulatory board.
The remediation team says a 20-year licence allows for flexibility and removes the need to renew the licence “mid-remediation” if the clean-up schedule changes.
The project is funded for 15 years as part of the federal government’s Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program – a significantly shorter period than the expected 100-year monitoring and maintenance phase at Giant.
According to 2013 estimates, the capital costs for the remediation project are $480 million plus annual costs of $1.9 million over that 100-year period. After remediation is complete, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada estimates post-closure costs will be $6 million per year.
Todd Slack, a consultant representing the City of Yellowknife at the hearings, said the City has “three good-faith disagreements” on the project.
The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board hearing lasted for a week. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
“Number one, the need to identify and plan for future uses,” said Slack. “Number two, ensuring secured financial resources for the future. And three, clarity and certainty in the closure plan.”
The City asked the board to order a special study that would, Slack said, address gaps in funding in the near future. Al Harman Jr, representing the North Slave Métis Alliance, agreed that long-term federal funding commitments – with contingency funds in case of “unforeseen obstacles” – are important.
‘Phased’ approach to final plan
While groups like the City expressed concern about the lack of a final plan for the clean-up and closure of the site, the project team has proposed a “phased approach” that would see the ultimate plan submitted to the board over time. The team wants to begin its “active closure” work in 2021.
Slack said the City wants a final closure plan, with high-level detail, before a water licence is issued.
The plan, he said, should be a “coherent approach that will establish the goalposts and provide some information as to how we’re going to get there.”
Kathleen Racher, chair of the independent Giant Mine Oversight Board – which acts as a public watchdog scrutinizing the project team’s work – agreed that the closure and reclamation plan as submitted did not meet the criteria for a final plan.
If the regulatory board approved the existing plan, Racher said, it could affect the ability for others to provide input or oversight as the team develops a more detailed plan in future.
Meanwhile, the Yellowknives Dene suggested the project did not yet possess what it called the “social licence” to go ahead – whether or not this was an aspect the regulatory board felt prepared to consider.
Elders have long requested compensation and a federal apology for the harms caused to people and the environment by Giant Mine’s arsenic contamination while operational.
In the First Nation’s final submission to the regulatory board on Friday, Lines asked if the board would allow the project to continue without that social licence, reiterating the call for compensation, an apology, and a community benefits plan.
Chris MacInnis, director of the clean-up project, told the hearing the federal government “will continue to address legacy issues, including apology and compensation associated with the historic Giant mining operations.”
Racher, for the oversight board, said even though such issues may be outside the scope of the regulatory board or project team, they are within the mandate of the NWT government and Government of Canada.
“These context issues are inextricably linked to the project,” Racher said. “It isn’t possible to separate the broader issues – including reconciliation, economic opportunities, improved communications, and respect for the authority of rights-holders – from the narrow mandate of the project team.”
“No one has been more impacted by Giant than Aboriginal people in this area,” Harman Jr added. “The social and psychological impacts have been great, with uncertainty around the site and its effects on water, soil, animals, and fish.”
Several Elders who spoke at the hearing said they remained unsure quite how safe it now is to harvest plants and animals in the area, and spoke of changes to the land since the mine opened.
“I’m really concerned about our future children and arsenic stored underground,” said Elder Modest Sangris through an interpreter. “Is there any way you can get rid of arsenic? Maybe you can do it a little bit at a time.”
The Yellowknives Dene highlighted another continuing concern in the form of local employment at the clean-up site.
Bobby Drygeese, a First Nation councillor and chair of the Det’on Cho Corporation’s board, argued for the remediation team to award contracts and work to locals who will still be here 15 years in the future.
The project has been criticized several times in the past for relying to an excessive degree on southern hires. Figures three years ago suggested one in four people working on the project came from the North, with just one in 25 identifying as Indigenous.
Several groups expressed the conviction that their remaining concerns would be satisfactorily addressed through the remaining licensing process.
Jessica Hurtubise, a regulatory analyst for the North Slave Métis Alliance, went as far as praising the week-long hearing for “allowing intervenors to be the centre,” in contrast to her experience of other industry-related regulatory processes.
Intervenors will now submit their final arguments in March, before the regulatory board deliberates in late May. The eventual recommendation of the board then goes to the federal government for a final response.