Federal inspections of N.W.T. contaminated sites down over last three years

In the last three years, federal inspections of contaminated sites the Canadian government is responsible for cleaning up in the N.W.T. have decreased, based on inspection report filings to territorial regulatory agencies. The federal department said with less work happening on the sites, fewer inspections are needed.

CIRNAC says COVID-19 and completion of active cleanup on sites are behind the drop-off

An aerial image of temporary erosion control measures designed to keep sediment from running into Bullmoose Creek. The photo was taken during the last site inspection to the Bullmoose-Ruth Remediation Project from a federal inspector in May 2021. It was the first such inspection at the N.W.T. site in more than three years. (Inspection report, CIRNAC)

In the last three years, federal inspections of contaminated sites the Canadian government is responsible for cleaning up in the N.W.T. have decreased, based on inspection report filings to territorial regulatory agencies.

In 2020, no inspection reports were filed by federal resource management officers for nine of the ten sites currently managed by the Contaminants and Remediation Division (CARD) of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC).

Only the Giant Mine Remediation Project, which is in active remediation, had four visits in 2020.

The Contaminants and Remediation Division of CIRNAC manages and administers the cleanup of a number of contaminated sites — mostly abandoned mines — across the territory. The department kept this responsibility after Canada's 2014 devolution agreement with the N.W.T. and often contracts out cleanup work at these sites to third-parties.

Federal inspectors with CIRNAC's Resources and Land Management Division visit these sites to ensure that CARD, as the land-use permit holder, meets the terms and conditions of its permits and water licenses.

The same federal department tasked with leading the cleanup work is also responsible for conducting the inspections of those sites. Offices for both divisions of CIRNAC are located in the Gallery Building in downtown Yellowknife.

The N.W.T.'s land and water boards have no way to enforce the conditions of these permits on their own, but the CIRNAC minister empowers federal inspectors to make sure permit and water license holders stay in compliance.

"We value our inspectors," Paul Dixon, executive director of the Sahtu Land and Water Board, told CBC News in an email. "Their boots on the ground work provides the board with important site assessments which helps us regulate the activity."

Three-year gap in inspections at Bullmoose-Ruth

But some contaminated sites, like Rayrock and the Gordon Lake Group Remediation Project, have recently gone more than two years without a site inspection. 

The Gordon Lake project — consisting of nine abandoned mine sites around the lake, roughly 110 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife — was visited six times by inspectors in the 13 months leading up to March 19, 2019. It then went more than two years without another visit.

In a written response to CBC News, a CIRNAC spokesperson said the decrease in federal inspections to N.W.T. sites was partly attributable to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but was mainly due to a number of projects transitioning from active remediation into long-term monitoring over the last three years.

Remediation work at Rayrock is slated to begin in 2022. Gordon Lake went into long-term monitoring in 2019.

"The number of inspections required correlates to activities on a site," the CIRNAC spokesperson wrote. "It's also important to note that long-term monitoring activities on sites do not require continuous onsite inspections by our inspectors. [CIRNAC]'s inspection schedule will increase as sites become more active."

A map of the Bullmoose-Ruth Remediation Project - a group of seven abandoned mines within 20 kilometres of each other, roughly 80 kilometres east of Yellowknife. (Annual Report 2016, DIAND)

At the Bullmoose-Ruth project — seven abandoned mine sites about 80 kilometres east of Yellowknife — there was a more than three-year gap between inspection report filings, before inspectors flew in earlier this spring. 

Back in May 2017, inspectors Tim Morton and Devin Penney filed a report critical of the site cleanup, noting they were "extremely disappointed" with the remediation team. CARD and its subcontractors had failed to comply with 18 conditions of CARD's land-use permit and remediation plan.

Federal inspectors returned six more times in less than a year, filing six separate reports of the Bullmoose-Ruth sites. An inspection report on March 28, 2018 was the last one filed until May 31, 2021.

Bullmoose-Ruth went into long-term monitoring after most major remediation work was completed in 2019. CARD contractors still visit the site to take water samples and monitor sediment discharge into water bodies, detailed in annual water license reports to the regulatory board.

But even at the latest visit, on May 31, 2021, Penney, an inspector, found some conditions at the site "unacceptable." For example, he pointed out some mitigation measures designed to keep sediment out of Bullmoose Creek "short-term." In his opinion, he wrote, these measures would not be effective to stop "further erosion and sediment release."

"With respect to the Bullmoose-Ruth Remediation Project, the Inspectors are in regular communication with the Project team as they move forward on plans to address outstanding issues," the CIRNAC spokesperson wrote.

Independent oversight needed: MLA

There is no minimum requirement for federal site inspections. A 2007 document from the former iteration of CIRNAC calls for "periodic" inspections of sites post-closure, but the term periodic is not defined anywhere in the document.

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said it's "not a good situation" that the federal department tasked with cleaning up contaminated sites in the N.W.T. is also in charge of making sure it complies with the conditions of its land-use permits and water licenses. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Right now, CIRNAC uses its own internal risk-assessment system to determine "inspection frequencies through a risk based lens."

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said he has seen the checklist-style rating system used to grade the sites. He has concerns the inspection process lacks independent oversight, given CIRNAC is essentially in charge of inspecting sites it also manages.

"That's not a good situation," said O'Reilly. "That needs to be carefully looked at and the proper types of checks and balances and accountability needs to be put in place or some other mechanism for independent oversight."

"There really is no policy framework or legislation that sets out how this growing inventory of contaminated sites are to be managed over time, especially those sites that require some sort of human intervention through monitoring maintenance," he said, referring specifically to remediated sites with water retention structures, water treatment or tailings covers. "All of those do degrade over time and do require some kind of inspections, monitoring, maintenance over time."

O'Reilly was quick to say he was not critical of the work of the individual inspectors.

"I respect the work that they have to do and this is nothing about them," he said. "They have very tough jobs and they do their best, but there does need to be some independent oversight as well."

"The lines of accountability are sometimes not all that clear and may lead to issues and problems in the future."