Federal plans to clean up the former Rayrock uranium mine and its surroundings will be examined at a three-day public hearing to be broadcast live by Cabin Radio next week.
The area around the mine, known as Kwetıı̨ɂ̨aà to the Tłı̨chǫ people, is in some ways the Tłı̨chǫ equivalent of Yellowknife’s Giant Mine. Both left a toxic legacy that’s complex, time-consuming and expensive to deal with.
The Rayrock mine, around 60 km northeast of Whatì, only operated from 1957 to 1959. “The Tłı̨chǫ were never informed of the dangers of uranium mining before the mine was built, or soon after it was closed,” the Tłı̨chǫ Government has said.
The impact on the surrounding land – and Tłı̨chǫ people – has been felt for generations. Cleanup work took place in the 1990s but more problems have since come to light.
“People used to travel here before. And once they discovered it was contaminated, they hardly use it any more,” Noel Drybones said in 2018 according to a Tłı̨chǫ Government document filed in advance of the hearing. (The Tłı̨chǫ Government did not respond to interview requests for this report.)
“People don’t want to travel around here,” said Drybones. “All the surrounding lakes, we can’t touch.”
However, the process of addressing Rayrock’s contamination may provide lasting benefits. Regulators say the recent collaborative approach taken by the Tłı̨chǫ and federal governments is a model for other projects to follow.
“They asked the Elders: what do you want? It’s a best practice of how to incorporate traditional knowledge into decision-making,” one regulator with knowledge of the project said.
The three-day public hearing, set to run from April 28-30 in Yellowknife, is important as it marks one of the highest-profile opportunities for Tłı̨chǫ people to publicly air their concerns about the lasting damage caused by the uranium mine and their hopes for its remediation.
The hearing will be overseen by the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board and is designed to scrutinize the cleanup plans before the board decides whether to award a water licence until 2027 and a land use permit until 2025 (that can be readily extended to 2027).
While the presence of radioactivity is a key concern for the Tłı̨chǫ, next week’s hearing primarily scrutinizes the remediation project’s use of the land and water rather than how that radiation is handled. The federal government has a separate licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to manage 71,000 tonnes of uranium-bearing tailings at the site. Much like the burying of arsenic trioxide in chambers beneath Giant, Rayrock’s tailings are mostly – and will remain – buried underground.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government wants the remediation work to make the site safe, shrink the “avoidance area” – the zone around the Rayrock mine that Tłı̨chǫ people currently avoid – and involve the Tłı̨chǫ in all aspects, from employment to communication.
Work will ‘uphold Tłı̨chǫ values’
Initial remediation work in the 1990s took care of much of the contamination at Kwetıı̨ɂ̨aà, but a review in 2010 found gaps in monitoring and triggered a fresh environmental site assessment.
The hearing marks the culmination of around five years of subsequent federal research into Rayrock, during which the scale of the contamination became fully apparent for the first time.
Only in 2017, for example, did sampling at the nearby Mill Lake reveal conclusively “that the sediments posed a potential hazard to human health and the environment,” the federal government said. As a result, an action plan on a broader scale than previously contemplated was drawn up in 2018.
That lake will now be drained, a decision that the federal and Tłı̨chǫ governments both say was “difficult.”
“It’s something that’s been created by the Creator. Now we have to get rid of it forever,” said Elder Joseph Judas earlier this year, according to Tłı̨chǫ Government documentation submitted for the hearing.
“At the same time too, somehow, some way, we had to do it in order to get rid of contaminated waters,” Judas said.
The cleanup project will also tackle former exploration sites around Rayrock, an old barge landing at Marian Lake, and a disused power line between Rayrock and the Snare hydro facility at Big Spruce Lake.
At this stage of the process, it is unlikely that the Rayrock remediation will not receive approval, in part because of the collaboration between governments.
The federal government told Cabin Radio it had used a “traffic light” model to ensure the cleanup methods chosen were acceptable. Various options were set out on paper: any that could not be accepted by the Tłı̨chǫ people or the project team were marked in red. The options being put forward at the public hearing are all marked green, meaning they are jointly considered preferred options.
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said work at Kwetıı̨ɂ̨aà “could only be done with the full participation of the Tłı̨chǫ” and pointed to the decade-long work of the Kwetı̨ı̨ɂaà Elders Committee, whose advice formed the foundation of the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s submissions and whose members helped guide site sampling and monitoring.
The federal department said it had consequently “gained a solid understanding of the Tłı̨chǫ’s traditional land use in the area pre-development, as well as their involvement at the site during mine operations, and how they currently view the site and surrounding land and water today.”
Ottawa says the cleanup work will “uphold Tłı̨chǫ traditional values and their long-term vision for the Kwetı̨ı̨ɂaà site and surrounding lands and water.”
To be monitored ‘forever’
The public hearing is likely to focus on details of the work, such as the precise location of the confined disposal facility or CDF, the technical term for a place where remaining waste is going to be buried, then sealed.
The NWT government, in documents filed ahead of the hearing, expresses concern that the exact location of that facility still hasn’t been determined and, in the GNWT’s words, “little progress” has been made on a decision.
“It is not possible for the GNWT to fully assess the level of risk of this project without confidence that the CDF can be appropriately designed and constructed,” the territorial government writes.
The federal government says several factors related to the land beneath the CDF make that decision tricky. It is within the power of regulators to issue licences and permits with conditions that demand the CDF’s eventual location be separately approved before any work goes ahead, giving Ottawa time to reach a conclusion.
Meanwhile, the Tlicho Government has asked for the federal project team to design solutions for Rayrock that can be shown to have a thousand-year lifespan, to give people confidence that they will work in the long term.
Ron Breadmore, the remediation project manager, said the design team had “considered the potential long-term effects of climate change” but added “it is difficult to model beyond 100 years.”
Once remediation work is complete, the federal government will remain the site’s custodian. Radioactive material at the site means the former mine will remain supervised by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission “forever,” regulators said.
The public hearing will be carried live on Cabin Radio’s Facebook page from April 28. Viewers will be able to ask questions at the hearing by leaving comments under the live broadcast.