Sask. Research Council defends uranium mine cleanup plan as estimated cost balloons from $24M to $280M

The Saskatchewan Research Council is defending its work on the cleanup of an abandoned uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, following the Ottawa's claim that its plans are "not cost-effective" and an estimated cleanup cost that's more than 10 times the original projection.

Province suing federal government for share of costs; feds say original agreement promised no cost overruns

The Saskatchewan Research Council has been working to clean up the abandoned Gunnar uranium mine site since 2006. (Submitted by Saskatchewan Research Council)

The Saskatchewan Research Council is defending its work on the cleanup of an abandoned uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, following Ottawa's claim that the SRC's plans are "not cost-effective" and an estimated cleanup cost that's more than 10 times the original projection.

In 2006, the province and the federal government signed an agreement to split the cost of cleanup for the abandoned Gunnar mine, estimated at the time to be $24.6 million.

The costs have now ballooned to an estimated $280 million, of which the province says the federal government has contributed $1.13 million. This week, the government of Saskatchewan sued Ottawa to get the rest of the money it says the federal government promised.

SRC wasn't sure what to expect in cleanup

In September of 2006, the Saskatchewan Research Council — the provincial Crown research corporation — was asked by the province to work on the Gunnar site and 36 satellite sites. The SRC is now on the ground, beginning the actual cleanup process at Gunnar and some of the satellite sites.

"You don't know what you're going to expect in terms of every shovel load that you'll be taking out," said Joe Muldoon, vice-president of the SRC's environment division, explaining why the cleanup has become so expensive.

"You might discover contamination that you would have never considered."

Liability for the Gunnar site cleanup lies with the Saskatchewan government, according to Natural Resources Canada. (Saskatchewan Research Council)

In 1953, employees started moving to the Gunnar mine townsite. Five years later, there were two apartment buildings, 86 homes, a school, a hospital and even a bowling alley and curling rink. The mine supplied refined uranium yellowcake that was an essential ingredient for U.S. atomic weapons.

The mine closed in 1963 and the mill operations closed in 1964.

What's left behind now is a big mess.

"When we were out on the site, when we first started in 2008 ... there were still coffee cups still in the maintenance buildings," Muldoon said. "It was as if people literally got up from their desks and walked off the site."

PCBs, asbestos among contaminants

It sat from then until the SRC recently started the cleanup. Muldoon says part of the problem is that in the 1950s and 1960s, regulatory oversight didn't exist the way it does today.

"People didn't understand what the implications were and really what kinds of contaminants were there," he said, adding that there are no records of what was on site.

The first step in June 2007 was the comprehensive environmental study that was directed by regulatory authorities. That was to figure out where the contaminants were and how — and if — they were moving and impacting the land.

From there, the research council met with local communities to ensure that the land would meet their needs in terms of hunting, fishing and trapping in the future. 

Asbestos is removed from building demolition debris and sealed in plastic bags by trained demolition workers at the Gunnar uranium mine site. (Saskatchewan Research Council)

The crews found many contaminants, including hazardous waste, PCBs in transformers, batteries, 25 drums of yellowcake (a type of uranium concentrate powder), a huge inventory of asbestos and tailing ponds.

"The tailings area is 4.4 million tons of uranium tailings," Muldoon said, adding that it covers 91 hectares — or the same space as 112 football fields — laid out in three areas.

The site on the shore of Lake Athabasca is only accessible by winter ice road.

Muldoon expects the process to take several years.

"We have to clean it up," he said.

"It's contaminating the local area and we need to bring it back to a level where the local communities feel safe and where they can go up and use that land in the way they've been using it traditionally for thousands of years."

SRC's plans 'not cost-effective': feds

To date, the province has spent $125 million cleaning up the mine and its satellite sites. The province said the federal government's $1.13 million contribution covers Phase 1 of the project.

On Nov. 1, Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre received a letter from federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi outlining the federal issues with the project.

Sohi highlighted that the original agreement signed in 2006 stated Saskatchewan would manage the project in a timely and cost-effective manner, with no cost overruns. Sohi also pointed out that the mine was not regulated by the government of Canada.

"Experts in my department have conducted thorough reviews of the SRC's work on the Gunnar project since 2011," he wrote.

"They continue to conclude that the remediation plans proposed by SRC since 2010 are not cost-effective."

Sohi wrote that the federal government intends to honour the original commitment, but said that amendments will have to be made to the original agreement because the second and third phases of the project require Saskatchewan to get a uranium mine decommissioning licence, and that has not happened.

With files from Adam Hunter, Bonnie Allen and The Morning Edition