The bulk of work to clean up the heavily contaminated Giant Mine outside Yellowknife will finally begin on Monday, 17 years after the former gold mine closed.
While pilot programs and general maintenance have taken place in recent years, this month marks the beginning of the full, billion-dollar remediation project after the federally led team received the necessary environmental permits.
The milestone comes as the Yellowknives Dene First Nation renewed calls for Ottawa to press ahead with a formal apology for the mine’s toxic legacy and sign several other agreements. Land and water around the mine were contaminated by the gold roasting process, on the federal government’s watch, after the mine opened in 1948.
On Friday, the First Nation said it feared a fresh federal election in the near future could imperil relations.
“We have made more progress in the last six months on mending these historic wrongs than has been made in the last 70 years,” said Chief Edward Sangris in a statement. “However, we are growing concerned at the recent slowdown in momentum this summer and worry that an election could significantly delay, if not undo much of the important progress made over the past six months.”
The First Nation says it is close to reaching agreements that would begin negotiations for a formal apology and compensation payment while advancing its socio-economic priorities related to the mine.
Remediation of Giant Mine, work that’s expected to take about a decade, has been compared to the opening of a new, small mine near Yellowknife in terms of its economic impact. Several hundred jobs are set to be created in the coming years.
Work will focus on permanently freezing 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide, produced during the gold roasting process, that was left underground when the mine closed. Freezing the ground around those underground chambers, while not considered an ideal solution, is the best option science is so far able to provide. The work will ensure toxic material can’t leak out and water can’t get in.
However, much of that work won’t be immediately visible to Yellowknife residents and the beginning of full remediation does not mean the city will be transformed by an influx of heavy equipment or workers.
This year, the changes will be subtler in nature.
Residents will notice some blasting in the fall to level a rock outcrop above the first underground chamber to be frozen. A landfill for non-hazardous waste like wood and metal will be built, and some underground stabilization work – filling voids that aren’t considered high-risk with a mix of cement and tailings – will take place.
The former Giant Mine townsite is due to be dismantled next year, in what will be one of the more obvious signs of full remediation taking place.
“For the most part, it probably won’t look that much different than now,” said Natalie Plato, a spokesperson for the Giant Mine remediation team, of this year’s work.
“There might be some increased traffic going down the old Ingraham Trail toward the site. Otherwise, the work will be mostly contained within the fence and the secure areas that people won’t see much.
“We’re still working on finalizing our implementation plan, to see how the work will transpire over the next eight to 10 years. In 2022, the work will probably even be actually a little bit less. For 2023 and beyond, my gut is we’ll be ramping up but we don’t have a final plan.”
The Giant Mine Oversight Board – which acts as a watchdog examining how the remediation team does its job – says its main concern continues to be whether all the work being generated by the project is going to the right people.
The board has in the past criticized the remediation project for doing too little to involve northern, Indigenous people.
“We really do see this as a huge opportunity, not just for now, not just for construction,” Dr Kathy Racher, a director of the oversight board, said in a live broadcast on Thursday.
The board is contracting a company to conduct a detailed assessment of the project’s socio-economic performance.
“This is a mine site that needs to be maintained in perpetuity. People need to be on the site taking care of it forever, and those people should be local people, local businesses,” said Racher.
“We are continuing to make sure they pay attention to that.”
Racher said ultimately, the oversight board hoped Indigenous governments would feel empowered to train workers for the perpetual task of looking after Giant. Even once active remediation ends, care and maintenance of the site is essentially forecast to last forever unless someone invents a better means of taking care of the arsenic trioxide underground.
Morgan Tsetta, a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation who has led a TikTok campaign to raise awareness of Giant’s toxicity and its impact on local people, said there still needed to be “more of a focus on remediation from a Dene perspective.”
“There needs to be Indigenous oversight and it needs not to happen through competitive contracts,” Tsetta told Cabin Radio this week.
“A lot of the remediation work the government is saying it has given to the Yellowknives Dene, was actually given through very highly competitive contracts. We are looking for a seat at the table so we can always ensure our lands are being protected from a Dene perspective.
“The cleanup in general is positive. It’s something that is long overdue. It’s something that needs to be done. But it cannot be done without Yellowknives Dene oversight.
“There’s so much mistrust and there’s such a history of neglect, of misinformation from the government, from developers, from contractors, from the owners of the mine. The Yellowknives Dene need to have our own say and have a working relationship with whoever is responsible.”
McKenna Hadley-Burke contributed reporting.