The federal project to make safe Giant Mine, one of Canada’s most contaminated sites, will now be subject to independent scrutiny.
And soon, the City of Yellowknife hopes you’ll be able to get the latest on Giant Mine at a special office while you take a walk downtown.
The former gold mine left behind 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide stored in underground chambers when it closed in 2004. Since then, the federal government has been working on a decades-long remediation plan expected to cost around a billion dollars or more.
That federal project will now have full, independent oversight for the first time, in the shape of a Giant Mine oversight body created by an environmental agreement announced on Wednesday.
In full: Giant Mine environmental agreement (pdf)
Six directors will sit on that body, drawn from the six signatories to the agreement: the Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the City of Yellowknife, Alternatives North, and the North Slave Métis Alliance.
“They will form an independent group that reviews everything that’s being proposed for the remediation,” Dennis Kefalas, the City of Yellowknife’s senior administrative officer, told Moose FM.
“They’ll provide their input: whether it’s good, bad, and possible improvements that could be made.
“This should be a feel-good story that everybody’s committed to doing the right thing.”
The federal government is providing the oversight body with $3.8 million in funding over the first five years of its life. Alternatives North says Canada has also committed to “flexible long-term funding arrangements” for the duration of the oversight body’s existence.
“This has been a very long struggle for our community to have a more meaningful role in the remediation of the Giant Mine,” said Alternatives North’s Kevin O’Reilly in a statement.
“We have made significant progress on strong oversight, public reporting, investment in ongoing research, and a requirement for a detailed perpetual care plan. That plan will inform future generations about what has to be done to make the site safe.
“As a society we don’t get to walk away from Giant Mine. This agreement is for the life of the project or basically forever, and sets out an integrated approach to a social licence for the remediation to move forward.”
Kefalas told Moose FM the need for independent oversight stemmed not from direct concerns about the federal government’s approach, but a desire to boost public confidence in what’s happening at Giant.
“It’ll provide input into every facet of how they remediate the site to ensure it’s remediated appropriately,” he said.
“There was no mechanism in place to help build that confidence within the public that yes, the federal government is taking this project seriously, and yes, they are going to invest in it and invest in the future of Yellowknife.
“We’re hoping it will build confidence in the project, so residents know the most appropriate actions are taken to remediate the site. We want to encourage people looking to move here and really build a future for the city.”
As a consequence of this agreement, Kefalas hopes to provide Yellowknifers with a physical downtown location at which to pick up Giant Mine information in future.
“The proposal is to include an office set up on Franklin Avenue,” he told Moose FM. “That office will allow people to go and ask questions, and be open at times that are more conducive to allow people who are busy in the day to stop in on weekends and evenings to gather information about what’s going on.”
In a news release on Wednesday, Bernard Valcourt – the federal minister responsible for Giant Mine – said he was ‘proud’ to sign the environmental agreement creating the new oversight body.
Michael Miltenberger, the territorial environment minister, said the agreement would “ensure residents have an active voice on the ongoing remediation”.
The agreement demands that an oversight body be in operation and “managing its own affairs” by the end of 2015, with a detailed “state of knowledge report” – on the technologies available to remediate Giant Mine – to be completed by the end of 2018.
The oversight body will run its own research team, responsible for looking into alternative ways to deal with the mine’s arsenic trioxide contamination.
At the moment, the plan is to store the arsenic trioxide indefinitely by sealing it inside frozen underground blocks.
With today’s technology, the federal government says “the safest way to manage the arsenic trioxide waste is to freeze it where it is, contain it, and keep it where it cannot contaminate the underground water because the ground will be frozen solid”.