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The Giant Mine site in Yellowknife has been listed as one of the most contaminated sites in the country. It will cost close to $1 billion to clean up. (CBC)

The Northwest Territories government wants to ramp up inspections at mine sites so it doesn't get stuck paying for any cleanups after devolution.

Right now, the federal government foots the bill for cleaning up any mines and exploration camps that go bankrupt — up to $1 billion, in the case of Yellowknife’s Giant Mine.

After devolution, the territory will be on the hook for whatever happens under its watch.

Under the N.W.T. devolution deal, the federal government has agreed to clean up existing contaminated sites.

So far, there are 76. That includes Giant Mine, sites along the Canol Trail and Dew line sites, as well as overseeing remediated sites such as Colomac Mine.

"We’re absolutely confident there are no Giant Mines that we don't know about lurking in the woods. I think there's a fairly comprehensive inventory there," said Martin Goldney, the territory’s devolution negotiator.

The federal government currently has 20 inspectors working in the N.W.T., three of which oversee the diamond mines. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development says operating mines such as Diavik are checked annually, and sometimes even monthly, to make sure they're following the rules.

But not all operations or exploration sites are inspected every year. Aboriginal Affairs determines what level of risk a site poses. Roadside parks or leases for cabins used for fishing or trapping may be inspected less frequently, according to the department.

For example, out of 2,500 open resource files, the department inspected one third of them in 2011.

Feds criticized for lack of inspections

But last fall, a federal audit criticized the department because 70 per cent of required inspections were not done that year. That report said even people in that department complained that not enough monitoring was being done.

Now after devolution, the territory will be in charge of those inspections; overseeing sites to ensure they don't become problems down the road.

Goldney said that could mean hiring more inspectors.

"Canada still has those files, obviously, still working with those files, still Canada's responsibilities, but as quickly as we can, and as soon as we can, we'll be doing that work and trying to identify where we should focus more attention," he said. "We do expect to have more boots on the ground."

Goldney said there are now stricter rules requiring mines to set aside money for cleanups, so there shouldn't ever be another massive, costly cleanup situation like Giant Mine.

The Jericho mine in Nunavut is only a few years old. The company owners abandoned the site and, despite the money they were supposed to put aside, taxpayers may end up getting stuck with that bill.

And those bills can get big - the Giant Mine cleanup alone is expected to cost close to $1 billion

Starting in 2014, there will be a five-year window where the territorial and federal governments can negotiate who has to pay for any new contaminated sites. After that, the territory is on its own.