Public hearings into $1B Giant Mine remediation begin at last

After much groundwork, public hearings into a $1-billion cleanup at Yellowknife's Giant Mine are getting underway.

‘It’s monumental,’ says project lead

Buildings on the former Giant Mine property on Nov. 24, 2017. After 13 years of study, planning, assessment and discussion, public hearings on a $1-billion cleanup plan for the site get underway this week. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Public hearings on the closure and remediation plan for Yellowknife's defunct Giant Mine begin Monday. 

That's after 13 years of study, planning, assessment and discussion.

"It's monumental," said Natalie Plato, deputy director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, which is leading the cleanup.

The project is seeking a water licence for a 20-year term and a land-use permit for a five-year term from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. If all goes well, Plato anticipates her group could have those permits — along with terms and conditions — as soon as this summer, and start work on the cleanup project in 2020/2021.

"It means we can actually start the work and get this site remediated," Plato said.

Natalie Plato, the deputy director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, said she's hoping the cleanup effort can get underway in 2020/2021. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

A toxic legacy

The Giant Mine site, which sits within the boundaries of the City of Yellowknife, is one of the most contaminated sites in Canada.

From 1948 until 2004, gold from Giant Mine was a major economic driver for Yellowknife and the N.W.T. The mine became the property of the government of Canada in 1999, when Royal Oak Mines Inc. went into receivership. It operated for another five years before closing for good. 

The closure and remediation plan first and foremost addresses 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic arsenic trioxide left behind. The plan is to freeze the waste underground forever using thermosyphon technology.

The cleanup will also fill old pits, cover up tailings ponds and build a new water treatment plant so that runoff water can be treated before being discharged. It will also see the cleanup of the former Giant Mine townsite, on the shore of Back Bay, as well as the future site of a mining heritage museum. 

"Our pitch is to make the site safer for the environment and the public," said Plato. 

A billion-dollar plan

In 2007, when the plan was first presented and before an environmental assessment was ordered, it came with a price tag of $947 million, which was frequently rounded up to $1 billion. Plato said she expects that number to be revised once the terms and conditions of the water licence are made clear. 

Most of the details of the cleanup plan have already been reviewed by stakeholders and discussed at length during two technical sessions and a "closure criteria" workshop. 

Stakeholders — from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to Fisheries and Oceans Canada — have already filed their evidence, all of which is available on the land and water board's public registry. 

"There has been a lot of work done up until this point," said Shelagh Montgomery, executive director of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.

Signs at the former Giant Mine site warn away visitors. A remediation effort would see old pits and tailing ponds sealed and a new water treatment plant built on the site. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

No full agreement yet

The enormous project is not without controversy. 

"While we support the overall goals of the Project, in its current form, the water licence process is not capable of accommodating the YKDFN's rights," reads the opening slide of a presentation from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. 

The First Nation is still seeking compensation and an apology for the damage caused by the mine. It also fears that Baker Creek, which runs through the site, will not be returned to its full health, and that the Yellowknives will be shut out of environmental monitoring to follow the remediation unless more is done to train and build capacity among First Nation members.

The City of Yellowknife also has concerns. 

There are opportunities associated with the remediation, and those benefits should accrue here​​​​​​.- Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife city administrator

"The project's responses to the City's outstanding concerns have mostly refused to acknowledge validity of the concerns and a consequential absence of effort in addressing them," reads a slide the city will present this week. "Rather than working to resolve the issue, the project's effort has been in denying their applicability or value."

City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett is most concerned with the socio-economic impact of the cleanup. In particular, maximizing the business and employment opportunities for Yellowknifers and the Yellowknives Dene. 

"This is a complex project," she said. "There are opportunities associated with the remediation and those benefits should accrue here given the legacy of the project for the region."

Bassi-Kellett notes that the mine site takes up about seven per cent of the land within the city's municipal boundary, presenting unique opportunities. "It's not like it's 350 miles away." 

But no matter what happens, Bassi-Kellett said this week's hearings are significant. 

"This is huge," said Bassi-Kellett. "If there is an opportunity now — which we believe there is — to find some good to come out of the mine, we really want to see that happen."

The hearings will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Caribou Room at the Chateau Nova hotel, most of it taken up by registered interveners. Evening sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday are reserved for public comments and questions (though the public is invited to attend all sessions).

The full agenda can be viewed on the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board website.