Giant Mine Oversight Board calls for 'special envoy' to oversee local benefits from mine cleanup

"Maybe it's unfair that the project team has to not only have all of the engineering know-how to pull off the cleanup of the site, but also to have what is really a different skill set," says board chair Kathy Racher.

Socio-economic planning so far has been ‘both slow and of questionable efficiency’

Kathy Racher is the chair of the Giant Mine Oversight Board, an independent body overseeing the massive cleanup project. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

A strong leader is needed to oversee the major economic and reconciliatory opportunities presented by the Giant Mine cleanup, according to a new recommendation from the Giant Mine Oversight Board.  

The board wants Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to appoint a "special envoy," someone who would liaise with others "to develop and implement a comprehensive and integrated economic strategy."

Board chair Kathy Racher said the board tried to "think outside of the box" to find a way to address several concerns that have come up over the years, including sharing in the economic opportunities, creating jobs and training opportunities, and dealing with health concerns.

There continues to be an imbalance in the level of effort on economic and human well-being compared to ... the physical remediation work.- Giant Mine Oversight Board report

"We thought, you know, maybe it's unfair that the project team [the federal and territorial governments] has to not only have all of the engineering know-how to pull off the cleanup of the site, but also to have what is really a different skill set, which is doing all of the socio-economic aspects as well," Racher said.

The recommendation comes in the board's latest annual report, which notes that so far, socio-economic planning for the project has been "both slow and of questionable efficiency." It also notes that the project team "is dominated by an engineering and technical approach."

"In [the Giant Mine Oversight Board's] view there continues to be an imbalance in the level of effort on economic and human well-being compared to that related to the physical remediation work," the report reads. 

The board also notes that right now, it's unclear how northerners are benefiting from the cleanup, given the few reporting requirements in place.

"We have not seen evidence that the Government of Canada and the [territorial government] have adequately prepared local communities and businesses — Indigenous and non-Indigenous, large and small — to capture the significant economic benefits of the project."

The special envoy, the report reads, should have "significant experience in senior level positions across government and industry, and experience negotiating complex northern and cross-cultural issues. The special envoy should have experience reporting directly to federal and territorial ministers."

Board wants collaborative vision

The annual report — the board's fourth so far — includes three other new recommendations for the enormous cleanup project. 

The board also wants the federal, territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments to work together to come up with a land use plan for the Giant Mine site by 2025. 

That's a response to concerns expressed earlier this year that the cleanup plan, to date, expresses no clear vision of what the site will look like once the cleanup is done, or how it will be used or not used. 

"We recognize that that discussion hasn't really been finalized," Racher said. 

The board wants to see federal legislation used to make sure money is available for perpetual care and maintenance of the site after the remediation is complete. That still hasn't happened. 

The board also wants greenhouse gas emissions to be a factor in decision-making on the cleanup, something Racher says just wasn't part of the discussion 15 years ago when the environmental assessment was underway. 

Other recommendations

Several other recommendations remain in place. 

  • The board wants the federal government to "resolve the repeated requests from [the Yellowknives Dene First Nation] for an apology and compensation" for the impacts of Giant Mine.
  • It wants the project team and the territorial Health minister to develop a public communication and education plan on the risks of arsenic.
  • It wants all governments to work together to address off-site arsenic contamination. 
  • And it wants all parties engaging with the cleanup process to be granted the resources to participate fully. 

One updated recommendation asks the city of Yellowknife to "improve its ability to fully engage in aspects of the project affecting residents of Yellowknife." The board calls on the city to be more "proactive," particularly when preparing for potentially negative aspects of the cleanup, such as "increased traffic congestion and the effects of in-migration of perhaps many southern workers." 

A permanent solution? 

In addition to monitoring the cleanup project, the Giant Mine Oversight Board is also tasked with finding a permanent solution for dealing with the 137,000 tonnes of dangerous arsenic trioxide stored underground at the site. The current plan is to freeze the toxic dust in place. 

The board signed agreements to start four research projects in 2019, all focused on ways to "stabilize the arsenic, rather than extract it." 

"This decision is based on financial considerations and the knowledge that there is little other arsenic trioxide stabilization research taking place elsewhere," the report reads. 


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