The federal government says the NWT’s former Tundra Mine has been fully remediated – a hard-earned and costly victory amid a sea of contaminated sites awaiting clean-up.

Tundra Mine, briefly operational in the 1960s and a dumping ground in the 1980s but otherwise dormant, cost the taxpayer $110 million to clean up after former owner Royal Oak Mines went bust in 1999.

On Friday, the federal government offered tours of the site to dignitaries as it formally declared remediation complete.

Advertisement. Story continues below

The project lasted more than a decade as workers made safe tailings contaminated with arsenic and cleaned up soil around the site.

Though some revegetation has begun, the land – around 240 km north-east of Yellowknife – will remain recognizably an old industrial site for decades to come. Monitoring, using a combination of on-site equipment and drones, will cost an unspecified further sum each year.

Background: Federal government’s Tundra Mine remediation website

Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s newly installed minister for northern affairs, called Tundra’s remediation “a great example of the hard work of northerners and the importance of partnerships with local Indigenous communities.”

Northern residents represented 76 percent of the project’s suppliers and 61 percent of its employees.

However, Tundra’s successful clean-up remains a drop in the larger ocean of contaminated sites within the NWT.

Tundra is the 24th site under federal supervision to have reached this stage, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said by email on Thursday.

A federal webpage last updated in 2013 suggests Canada is responsible for more than 50 significant contaminated sites in the territory, including those 24.

A separate federal website lists 1,634 contaminated sites within the Northwest Territories, where a contaminated site is defined by Ottawa as “one at which substances occur at concentrations (1) above background (normally occurring) levels and pose or are likely to pose an immediate or long term hazard to human health or the environment, or (2) exceeding levels specified in policies and regulations.”

Some entries on the latter list are considered remediated and their files closed. Some are smaller sites not felt worthy of their own, separate clean-up projects.

Several dozen of them, for example, are grouped under one project to clean up the Canol Trail, a World War Two initiative which left contaminated soil, asbestos, and a range of hazardous materials strewn across 355 km of the Sahtu.

In the 2017-18 financial year, public records show federal agencies were obliged to spend money on some 275 separate contaminated sites in the Northwest Territories.

$157,000 was spent assessing a range of those sites, while a little over $103 million was spent on remediation work.

Of that figure, around $23.6 million was spent remediating the Tundra site in that financial year.

Unsurprisingly, Yellowknife’s Giant Mine – considered among the most toxic sites in Canada, harbouring 237,000 tonnes of poisonous arsenic trioxide in underground chambers – was the only site receiving more remediation money.

In the same period Canada spent just over $36 million on Giant, where full remediation work does not even begin until 2020.

Giant, like Tundra, was owned by Royal Oak when the company collapsed and the site became an unwanted federal problem. The full bill for Giant’s clean-up and maintenance – a program of indefinite, certainly decades-long duration – is expected to reach $1 billion in today’s money.

Job opportunities

In total, since 2005, publicly available records state the federal government has spent $810 million on assessment and remediation of contaminated sites in the NWT. (Spending began before 2005 but it is the earliest point to which continuous financial records are readily available,)

That figure does not include costs associated with care and maintenance or monitoring, which – while almost always considerably smaller than the bill for remediation – remain significant.

By comparison, the Northwest Territories received roughly $1.3 billion in guaranteed federal financial support in 2017-18. Work remediating the territory’s contaminated sites since 2005 therefore equates to around two-thirds of a year’s modern federal funding.

Looked at another way, the $810 million required over 13 years to protect people and the environment from unregulated past actions is more than the entire price tag of the Mackenzie Valley Highway (for which the territory remains about half a billion dollars short), and would meet more than half the cost of connecting the NWT to the southern grid.

For that money, 24 sites like Tundra are now fully remediated, but dozens more remain either partly cleaned up or barely touched.

Records for 2017-18 mention 472 of the NWT’s contaminated sites in some shape or form.

Of those, 47 had simply been identified as warranting attention; 215 had been submitted for historical review, whereby all archived information about the site is brought together; 34 were undergoing some form of testing; 99 were being classified or reclassified according to their level of contamination; 47 were awaiting the development of a plan to clean them up; eight were actively receiving remediation work; and 12 were ready for final sampling and reporting.

The one advantage of this legacy is employment, as jobs in mining and heavy industry are replaced by jobs undoing their damage.

A graphic presented to Yellowknife city councillors by Giant Mine’s remediation team, and subsequently shared online by Councillor Adrian Bell, shows 300 or more full-time jobs are expected to be created by the project for a period of several years in the early 2020s. Giant’s remediation has more than once been characterized by local politicians as equivalent to a small mine opening.

Alive to this benefit, the federal government included the following line in Minister LeBlanc’s Tundra Mine statement: “This project provided important training opportunities for local community members that enabled them to participate in the local economy and manage their land.”

With tens of contaminated sites still to be addressed, that training may prove useful for decades to come.