Report of the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development - Background

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead


Mining has a long history in the North beginning with Martin Frobisher's fraudulent schemes to find gold in Nunavut, through to the Klondike gold rush, the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and more recently, Canada's first diamond mine.

Who's in charge

  • The federal government through the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development still largely manages mineral resources in the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut. DIAND also has responsibility for Aboriginal peoples and environmental protection in the North, shared with other federal agencies.
  • Territorial and Aboriginal governments are playing an increasingly important role in northern mining as a result of devolution and the settlement of land rights.
  • There are no legislated requirements for security to ensure that there is full reclamation after mining in Canada's North. Federal water legislation leaves security requirements to the discretion of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Land leases for mining are also issued by the Minister but are not public documents according to DIAND policy. There are no legislated standards for reclamation from northern mining. In the absence of any standards it is difficult, if not impossible, to know how to set security in any water licences or land leases.
  • In August 2002, DIAND finally released mine site reclamation policies for the NWT and Nunavut. These policies were in development for over ten years, while several mine abandonments took place at locations such as Mount Nansen, Faro, Ketza River in the Yukon and Colomac and Giant in the NWT. The policies are not legally binding, continue to provide the DIAND Minister with full discretion over security for operating mines, and do not cover exploration or abandoned mines.

$ Millions in liabilities

  • The Faro mine in the Yukon has been in receivership since 1998. There are concerns with acid mine drainage, geotechnical stability of dams and little reclamation work to date. It is currently costing $8-10 million annually just to maintain, and current liabilities on the site are estimated at over $120 million.
  • A final inventory and assessment of Yukon mining sites has yet to be completed. Of the over 100 sites identified to date, the liability totals more than $270 million.
  • The Giant Mine in Yellowknife, NWT went into receivership in 1999. The site is heavily contaminated. Approximately 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide are stored underground. This proven human carcinogen is leaching out of the chambers and mined out areas but is pumped into the tailings facility. There is no known technology to clean-up the site and perpetual care and monitoring will be required. Clean up costs are estimated anywhere from $40 million to more than $1 billion.
  • An incomplete inventory of abandoned exploration and production sites exists with a total liability of more than $370 million, for sites in the NWT other than the Giant Mine.

Accidents waiting to happen

  • Two inspectors resigned in the NWT in 2001-2002 leaving the Ekati and Diavik diamond mines without any inspections for several months.
  • The North American Tungsten mine at Tungsten, NWT was allowed to reopen without an inspection and a preventable fuel spill took place in the first months of operation. It took DIAND almost a month to get an inspector on site.
  • The Prairie Creek advanced exploration project does not currently have a water licence and in the opinion of regulatory agencies, is likely in contravention of the NWT Waters Act for an unlicenced discharge that flows into Nahanni National Park Reserve. Both DIAND and the company have refused to disclose a reclamation liability report and the security requirements for this site.

What is required

  • At a minimum, there is a need for DIAND to clearly commit to a legally enforceable policy, with legislated reclamation standards.
  • The department should also commit to a process for securing industry-wide contributions to abandoned site clean up, through a Clean Canada Fund (see "What is Required" below).
  • DIAND could also put in place legislated liability to prevent future abandonments.


Unlike most developed countries, Canada has no national program to deal with contaminated sites. Local communities are left to deal with the toxic legacy, or, frequently, to cope and live with the contamination and its impacts on their health and the health of their children. Recent increases in imports of hazardous waste from our trading partners, paired with Canada's inability to deal with existing waste properly increase the urgency for developing an effective national program to deal with the problem.

Toxic sites include closed industrial areas sites in cities, abandoned hazardous waste dumps, old DEW line sites, landfills, nuclear power plants, mine sites and tailings ponds.

A poll undertaken by Environics in October 2001 showed that 84% of Canadians felt cleaning up communities affected by toxic waste was very important; and 78% felt it was more important than cutting personal income taxes, or corporate taxes (91%).

Some of the worst offenders

  • Sydney, Nova Scotia's infamous tar ponds are North America's largest toxic waste site. The area contains over 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge, of which an estimated 50,000 tonnes are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The accumulated toxic waste is situated in a tidal estuary, which sends PCBs to the ocean with every tidal cycle. Just upstream from the tar ponds is a 51-hectare abandoned coke oven plant. The results of tests done downwind of the site revealed levels of toxic chemicals that exceeded the guidelines for tolerable exposure by many times. These chemicals are known to cause a variety of health problems, including cancers, birth defects, heart disease, kidney disease, brain damage, immune deficiencies and skin rashes.
  • An old American naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland, left behind barrels of PCBs, along with heavy metals and asbestos. Landfills full of toxic waste pepper the site, and waste fuel has seeped into the water table, contaminating the local water. Argentia is one of 51 decommissioned US military sites across Canada. The total cost of cleaning them up has been estimated at $720 million dollars. They are contaminated with a range of toxics, including PCBs, mercury, lead, radioactive materials and various petroleum by-products. Cleanup is expected to take 30 years.
  • Canada's largest incineration facility at Swan Hills, Alberta, has earned a well-deserved reputation as a serious polluter. In July 1991, Chem-Security (Alberta) Limited (CSAL) filed for approval to add an incinerator (40,000 tonnes annual capacity) to the existing 13,500-tonne capacity Alberta Special Waste Treatment Centre (ASWTC). Since then, the facility has been plagued by a series of explosions and leaks. Criminal charges have resulted in conviction and fines for failure to report emissions. The operators have been sued by local first nations who have been unable to consume wild fish and game due to dioxin contamination caused by the facility. Ultimately, the suit was dropped when the first nations group ran out of money.

What is required

  • The Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments need to set up a contaminated sites programme to fund, prioritize and take action on toxic sites across the country.
  • A Clean Canada Fund should be established with $2 billion in start-up capital this year to begin the clean up of priority contaminated sites, and the relocation of communities at risk (where warranted). The fund should be partially replenished by: (1) a tax or levy on sectors which have profited from the creation of the contaminated sites (for example, orphaned mine and tailings sites, chemical research stations), (2) monies regained through settlements with polluters that can be identified, and (3) sale or lease of properties that have been remediated.

Who we are:

Canadian Arctic Resources Committee

CARC is a citizens' organization dedicated to the long-term environmental and social well being of northern Canada and its peoples. CARC has been involved in numerous northern issues, from helping negotiate an international treaty on toxic chemicals, to ensuring that Canada's first diamond mines were given the most thorough environmental assessments possible. Offices are located in Yellowknife and Ottawa.

MiningWatch Canada

A national watchdog organization founded in 1999 to promote responsible mining both in Canada and by Canadian companies operating abroad.

Sierra Club of Canada

The Sierra Club has been active in Canada since 1969. The Sierra Club of Canada's national office opened in Ottawa in 1989. Its mission is to develop a diverse, well-trained grassroots network working to protect the integrity of global ecosystems. The national office works closely with its chapters in British Columbia, the Prairies, Eastern Canada, and Atlantic Canada.

Yukon Conservation Society

The Yukon Conservation Society is a non-government, non-profit organization that encourages the conservation of Yukon ecosystems and promotes the scientific, educational, recreational, and aesthetic aspects of Yukon's wildlife and wilderness. YCS accomplishes its mandate through advocacy, research, and environmental education, and by participating in planning and consultation processes.