One of Canada’s most toxic places is about to deliver a major economic boost to Yellowknife. But do residents and businesses know it’s coming?

Giant Mine, a former gold mine at the city limits which ceased production in 1999, is home to 237,000 tonnes of a highly toxic mining byproduct named arsenic trioxide – all buried underground.

Planning and tests ahead of a federally funded clean-up operation are under way, with remediation work due to begin by 2020.

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In a new report, the Giant Mine Oversight Board (GMOB) – an independent watchdog observing the clean-up operation on the public’s behalf – says surrounding communities have not yet fully grasped the scale of the coming windfall.

Read: Giant Mine Oversight Board’s 2017 annual report

“The Giant Mine Project is both a remediation project and a development opportunity with major potential benefits from employment, business, and other economic activities for people of the region,” reads a page from the report.

“However, to seize those benefits a fundamental shift is required, moving from a focus on periodic local employment toward a collaborative, long-term vision.”

Dr Kathleen Racher, the oversight board’s chair, says the recommendation is addressed to both the team leading the clean-up and the community at large.

“Everyone has to be ready to receive those opportunities. People have to make sure there are business structures in place, the right kind of education and training,” Dr Racher told Cabin Radio.

“This is a big deal and people need to be prepared to take full advantage.

“Last year, I think the project team spent $40 million just on the site maintenance and planning phase. It’s expected that over the next decade or so, there will be hundreds of millions of dollars invested to clean up the site – so there are a myriad of opportunities that will last quite a while.”

‘Very disappointing’

The oversight board wants clean-up project managers to sit down with business groups and community leaders to create a bigger strategy for northern employment during the remediation.

One of the criticisms in the report is a lack of northern work opportunities so far.

The board says Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the federal department leading Giant Mine’s clean-up, promised to give more work to northerners but has not yet delivered.

Related: Second wave of arsenic testing for Giant Mine communities

Quoting INAC’s own figures, the oversight board says only 23 percent of employees and contractors working on the project were northern in the 2016-17 financial year – and just four percent were Indigenous.

“If these employment numbers are accurate and all-inclusive, GMOB finds this very disappointing and would have expected much greater involvement and benefits for northern and Indigenous communities,” the report concludes.

However, the oversight board says local businesses should also be taking the initiative to get ready for the start of full remediation work.

“Businesses, if they haven’t been contacted, should start the dialogue themselves, start asking questions and getting involved,” said Dr Racher.

“There are all sorts of business opportunities that we really hope people take advantage of. This is a one-off opportunity.”

Meanwhile, the oversight board said it had no significant concerns to date with the clean-up project’s effect on the environment or the health of nearby residents.

“We haven’t seen anything that made us worried or concerned,” said Dr Racher.

The Giant Mine Oversight Board features representatives of six groups: INAC, the GNWT, the Yellowknives Dene First Naton, the North Slave Métis Alliance, Alternatives North, and the City of Yellowknife.