Saskatoon·Audio

As fortunes rise for Saskatoon-area refinery, so do farmers' worries about tainted water

Fortune Minerals wants to build an ore refinery near farm land in Langham, Sask. A recent rezoning request has brought locals' trepidation back to the surface.

Fortune Minerals hopes Corman Park will sign off on plant's rezoning request this year

This sketch from Fortune Minerals outlines the proposed refinery on the left and some of the process residue containment cells on the right. (Fortune Minerals)

A proposed ore refinery near Saskatoon is again touching off concerns from farmers that the plant could contaminate water in the area.

But the company behind the project hopes a local council will have faith in the company's environmental protection plan and grant the company a crucial approval in the months to come.

Fortune Minerals wants to build a refinery plant near Langham, about 30 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. The refinery would process ore from a cobalt, gold, and bismuth mine still to be built in the Northwest Territories.

The refinery is needed to process ore from a proposed mine in the Northwest Territories, for which Fortune Minerals is still raising the $589 million in needed capital. (Fortune Minerals)

The plant, should it proceed, would create up to 90 jobs and provide a new source of tax revenue for the Rural Municipality of Corman Park.

But local cattle producers and grain farmers are worried about the plant's location within the Dalmeny aquifer and Fortune's plan to permanently store arsenic-containing refinery residues at the site, according to Judy Harwood, the reeve of the RM.

"Sure, sure it would be lots of money for Corman Park, but I don't think I'm prepared to sell my soul for tax dollars either. It's got to be right," said Harwood, while adding that she is keeping an open mind.

'Go in and listen'

The project is not new to local ears but has come back to the fore following a four-year quiet period.

A crucial supply road to the N.W.T. mine has recently received the blessing of a Northern regulator. And in April, Fortune applied to the RM of Corman Park to rezone the land needed for the refinery.

While the Saskatchewan government has approved the refinery, Corman Park's nine-member council, including Harwood, must still decide whether to grant the rezoning.

A public hearing is expected in the next few months, with the company predicting a final decision by the end of the year.

"I think the attitude right now is just to go in and listen and try to sort of still stay middle ground on this until it comes for us to make our decision, but be there to listen to the people and hear their concerns," said Harwood.

"I have my own concerns as well."

Long-term storage of residues at site

While the 43-hectare refinery site would eventually be remediated, the process residues would stay on-site in a series of capped containment cells. 

"That's what's sticking in my craw," said Harwood. "That's a poor way of putting it, but that's what I'm concerned about. Don't leave it behind in Corman Park for our grandchildren to have to worry about or have to monitor for the next 50 to 100 years."

The process residues will be a mix of "scordite, which is iron arsenate — a mixture of iron and arsenic — and gypsum, common material in drywall," said Rick Schryer, Fortune Mineral's vice-president of regulatory and environmental affairs.

"We've engineered a facility that exceeds any criteria in Saskatchewan in terms of permanent storage of residues," he added.

The design of the containment cells includes several layers separating the cells and the underlying water table.

Here's a detailed description from Schryer.

Fortune Minerals will also install several monitoring wells to keep tabs on the quality of water within the aquifer, and the cells will be built one at a time, with any lessons learned from one cell incorporated into the next. 

And even if there is a leak, "it took 500 years for water to get five centimetres into the ground under an extremely unrealistic [modeled] scenario," said Schryer.

'The what-ifs'

Some residents remain uneasy, however, said Harwood.

"What I get from a lot of the ratepayers [is] the what-ifs. Even if they say it can never happen, they still are not happy with the possibilities."

Still, Fortune Minerals has been the victim of some flat-out lies, Harwood added. She pointed to a local rumour that the company had approached Medicine Hat, Alta., about hosting the plant, only to be rebuked.

"I picked the phone up the next day and called the city of Medicine Hat and asked them in fact if that was the case. They'd never heard from Fortune Minerals."

The company's rezoning request must be voted through by two-thirds of Corman Park councillors, three times, with a public hearing taking place alongside the first vote.

That public hearing is expected in the months to come.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca