Audit of contaminated sites finds support in N.W.T. and Yukon

Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina, left, and Yukon Conservation Society mining analyst Lewis Rifkind, right, both agreed with parts of an auditor’s report that criticized the federal government’s handling of contaminated sites in the North. (Sara Minogue/Dave Croft/CBC)

Federal minister attributes expensive remediation to responsible cleanup

Critics in the Northwest Territories and Yukon are responding to an auditor’s report that scrutinizes how the federal government has managed contaminated sites in the North.

A chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in the N.W.T. says the report is evidence Canada is “missing the mark” when it comes to remediation and reconciliation, while a Yukon mining analyst agrees that longer-term plans are needed for some of the North’s big, abandoned mines.

The report from the federal commissioner of environment and sustainable development was released on Tuesday. It looked at Faro Mine in the Yukon and Giant Mine in the N.W.T. as examples of how the federal government has managed more than 2,600 contaminated sites across the North and more than 24,000 sites across Canada — more than 18,000 of which have been closed.

One of the audit’s findings is the federal government has not done enough to include Indigenous peoples in the management or cleanup of old mines, airports, military sites and landfills across the country — a finding supported by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and its two chiefs in the N.W.T.

In a statement, the First Nation said the Giant, Con and Negus mines were all located on its core harvesting area and were imposed without the community’s consent. While Canada and the companies benefited from the operations, the Yellowknives Dene said they suffered harm to their land, water, resources, culture and health.

A settling pond at the Giant Mine site in the N.W.T., in September 2022. It’s one part of a process that treats contaminated ground water from the mine before it is released into Baker Creek, which flows in Yellowknife Bay. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Giant Mine operated from 1948 to 2004 under various owners. In that time, it produced about 198 tonnes of gold and more than 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic arsenic trioxide dust, which is contained underground. 

“Canada must do better to remediate contaminated sites in a way that advances reconciliation with Indigenous peoples rather than furthering harm,” the Yellowknives Dene statement reads.

Dettah Chief Ernest Betsina wrote that the audit is a “call to action” for the federal government to “do things in a better way and to rectify the harms that contaminated sites caused to our people.”

The audit found Yukon’s Faro Mine had exceeded targets for training women, northern and Indigenous people in the pre-remediation phase, but that similar targets for Giant’s remediation had not been met.

In an interview with CBC News, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said more than 80 per cent of subcontracts at Giant had gone to Northern Indigenous companies. He also cited a recent agreement between Ottawa and the Yellowknives Dene that maps out procurement goals.

“We have a very important community benefits agreement with the Yellowknives Dene First Nations, we’re trying to make sure that the economic benefits and the social benefits [of] the remediation economy benefits Yellowknives [Dene],” said Vandal.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Stephen Guilbeault said in a statement that government programs to address contamination have been an important source of employment for many Indigenous communities in the North, and that the federal government would continue to build on those efforts.

Perpetual care plans

A mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society agrees with the report’s finding that the federal government needs to finish perpetual care plans for remediation at both the Giant and Faro mine sites.

The Faro Mine site in the Yukon in June 2023. The audit found the federal government hadn’t committed to a perpetual care plan for the abandoned mine. (Ross Bragg/CBC)

“Perpetual care plans, they’re a bit tenuous because you know, we’re talking forever,” said Lewis Rifkind. “But because we all know that this site [Faro] will never truly be cleaned up, it’s something we should be thinking about very early on.”

Rifkind said figuring out how future generations will manage and deal with high-risk, abandoned mine sites should be tackled early on.

“We’re sort of almost doing it backwards,” he observed. “We’re dealing with all the issues we can see at the moment, but 25 years from now, 50 years from now, they are still gonna be issues and we’re not even talking about what they could be.”

The report found that the federal government had not yet committed to developing a perpetual care plan for Faro Mine, and that such a plan for Giant Mine wasn’t finished yet.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada’s response, which is included in the audit, said that it would have an early version of a perpetual care plan done for Giant by April 2025. The Faro remediation project, it said, “envisions” developing a perpetual care plan in phases.

Rifkind said it was also “disappointing” that the federal government didn’t have plans to reduce the astronomical amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be generated by Faro’s remediation.

He said technology, though expensive, is becoming available to cut those emissions down.

On the money

Another of the report’s findings is that the cost of remediating contaminated sites across Canada had grown from $2.9 billion in 2005 to $10.1 billion in 2023, with $6 billion of that for the North alone.

Vandal said the work has become more expensive, in part, because the federal government is “not shying away” from protecting people and the environment.

“The costs reflect the necessary work needed to move all these remediation projects in a responsible way,” he said, adding that remediation was a “top priority” for Ottawa and the Liberal government didn’t want to do it “on the cheap.”

Jerry DeMarco, the commissioner of environment and sustainable development who released the audit, said remediation costs have gone up because more sites had been identified and the scope of work is now better understood.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: All emissions from Faro mine cleanup must be offset, review board says, CBC News

Norway: 25th anniversary of Norway’s financing of nuclear-dump cleanup in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska marine debris experts call for tighter regulation and more cleanup funding, Alaska Public Media

Liny Lamberink, CBC News

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She previously worked for CBC London as a reporter and newsreader. She can be reached at

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