Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services
Johanne Gelinas, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, concluded that the Department of Indian and Northern Affair's "Band-Aid approach" to contaminated mine sites could put Northern residents and the environment at a significant risk if long-term solutions are not found soon.
DIAND oversees all mining activity in the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut.
"I hope that the federal government will not wait until a major environmental incident happens before it fixes these problems," said Gelinas.
It is estimated cleaning up the hundreds of contaminated sites in the North will cost tax payers $555 million -- the bulk of that amount going to clean up Giant Mine.
The report is based on a survey of four abandoned mine sites. Two of the sites were in the Yukon, the other two, Giant and Colomac, were in the NWT.
Gelinas called the situation at Colomac an urgent problem, warning that the three tailings ponds there are nearing full capacity.
As for Giant Mine, Gelinas' report said the estimated 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide dust buried underground would fill seven 11-storey buildings. Monitoring the mine site to prevent the arsenic from reaching the water table would likely have to go on forever, and cost as much as $400 million.
"She basically said, 'You (DIAND) haven't done anything since 1992,' " said Canadian Alliance environment critic Bob Mills, who was in Parliament for the reading of the report. "Really, from a standpoint of contaminated sites, nothing has been of substance."
Karen Wristen, executive director of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, said DIAND's inability to come up with a solution for cleaning up abandoned mines is telling, considering how the department has put itself in the dual role of promoting mining development while enforcing water licences in the territories.
"I think we can see over the years that the economic development mandate has clearly prevailed," said Wristen. "She (Gelinas) doesn't really draw in attention to that conflict or any means of resolving it."
Wristen said DIAND also must get back to the business of regulating and legislating mining standards for the North, taking a dig at the department's freshly minted and widely panned mine site reclamation policy. Critics say the policy lacks the teeth to ensure mine operators honour financial security commitments for the eventual clean-up of mines after they close.
Taxpayers were left on the hook for Colomac and Giant after their previous owner, Royal Oak, went bankrupt.
Ian McGregor, director general of Natural Resources and Environment for DIAND, said his department thought the report was fair, and hopes they can move on its recommendations in the near future.
"The government has certainly indicated its intentions I think pretty clearly in the speech from the throne when they said they were planning on accelerating remediation of contaminated sites," said McGregor. "So that I believe is good news."