Attawapiskat First Nation challenges DeBeers' proposal for third landfill site

Attawapiskat First Nation says it's challenging the construction of a proposed landfill site near the community.

DeBeers Canada is decommissioning the Victor Diamond Mine

Attawapiskat First Nation is putting up a fight following a proposal put forward by DeBeers Canada to establish another landfill on its site. The company is currently decommissioning its Victor Diamond Mine. (Erik White/CBC)

Attawapiskat First Nation says it's challenging the construction of another proposed landfill site near the community.

The site would be located about 90 kilometers west of the community and would process demolition waste from the Victor Diamond Mine, which is being decommissioned. It would be the third landfill managed by DeBeers Canada, the company that owns and operates the mine.

Attawapiskat has hired environmental consultant Don Richardson who says the 100,000 cubic metre landfill would be quite large.

"The total amount of concrete of the CN Tower is probably about 45,000 cubic metres," said Richardson. "So you could stick two CN Towers in this facility. It's not a small landfill."

DeBeers Canada says it has been in consultation with the First Nation, as well as the federal government, regarding its plans to process demolition waste.

The Ministry of the Environment says it is waiting for more information from DeBeers on its proposal. Once that has been received, the ministry says it has offered to meet with Attawapiskat First Nation.

Landfills affect watershed, says Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat's director of land and resources says another landfill could create future health and environmental burdens for community members.

"Anything that's going to trickle down, it's going to come from the Ring of Fire, it's going to come from the DeBeers Victor Mine," Charles Hookimaw said.

"Everything goes downstream on these headwater watersheds where our water comes from."

Hookimaw says Ontario needs to "step up and do its job" to figure out the reason behind the diamond miner's request.

"Why does [DeBeers] need a third landfill? It was approved to have the first demolition landfill and the current operations landfill that's there. So they have two landfills there now. Why do they need a third landfill at this time, at this stage right now, is beyond me."

A 'responsible environmental approach': Debeers

In an email, De Beers Canada told CBC News that only non-hazardous inert demolition material would be deposited in the new landfill and its own environmental assessment studies have shown their plans are a "responsible environmental approach."

"Disposing of inert demolition material on site removes the need for additional transportation of material to an alternative site.  All hazardous materials are being properly stored until they can be removed from site for disposal in approved facilities," said the company in a statement.

DeBeers also said it has "actively engaged the community [of Attawapiskat] ahead of, and throughout the regulatory process and through the Environmental Management Committee established through the Impact Benefit Agreement."

It also said it shares in "Attawapiskat's desire to complete the closure and rehabilitation process in the most responsible manner and this is the focus of our planning."

Winter road decommissioned

Richardson says there are alternatives to processing the mine's waste, such as reopening the winter road the company maintained for several years during the mine's operation.

"Reopening the winter road is a viable option and would allow them to take the material to markets in the south," he said.

The company's own choice to close the winter road left Debeers with no other way to get mine demolition material offsite — other than a landfill, said Richardson. 

"A unilateral decision to close the contract on the winter road puts everybody in the position where they have to entertain this proposal for a very large landfill in the middle of the James Bay Lowlands, which is an incredibly environmentally sensitive area."

In its emailed response, DeBeers said shipping materials out to deposit in an approved industrial landfill somewhere else in Ontario is not good for the environment.

"Considering the environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions generated by transporting material hundreds of kilometres by road and rail, and the filling of another community landfill, the responsible thing to do is to permanently and safely dispose of the inert material on site," the company wrote.

The company says it's hoping the landfill will be up and running in 2021 so the current demolition and mine decommissioning can continue on its current schedule.

With files from Samantha Juric