Northern reclamation in Canada: contemporary policy and practice for new and legacy mines.

Author:Dance, Anne
Position::Report
 
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Abstract: This article discusses the factors shaping contemporary reclamation regimes in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern Labrador, and Nunavik in northern Quebec. It distils policy documents, laws, research reports, and newspaper articles for a clear overview of current policy and practice in the North and shows that no overarching vision informs reclamation planning. Instead of direction from Ottawa, responsibility for policy-making now largely sits with provincial, territorial, and regional governments along with local land and water boards. Efforts to mitigate the impacts of new and legacy mines are complicated by the highly site-and case-specific nature of reclamation; the lack of a clear, ambitious technical and regulatory definition of reclamation; and the jurisdictional overlap and governance issues associated with cleanup. Addressing these wider policy challenges in the North is crucial to meet the expansive, expensive demands of mine reclamation. As well, remediation efforts that draw on traditional knowledge and encourage local involvement can mitigate and manage some of the worst impacts of northern resource development. Policy reform such as strengthened regulations and more rigorous government enforcement will help facilitate this. However, reclamation can also exacerbate inequality and environmental problems. Effective reclamation demands more than a particular technological fix or planning strategy; it involves a candid discussion of the goals and limitations of reclamation projects, both past and present. This article has been summarized in an accessible up-to-date poster and will be of interest to concerned parties grappling with a plethora of reclamation regulatory bodies and programs.

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In late 2013, a journalist trying to clarify just who was responsible for reclaiming Nunavut's Jericho diamond mine threw up her hands in frustration, characterizing the case as a jurisdictional "hot potato." (1) The mine stopped operating a few years after its 2004 opening and the site has since become mired in legal limbo, with reclamation work that will cost millions of dollars left incomplete. (2) Jericho is not unique; thousands of abandoned and orphaned mines and exploration sites are scattered across Canada, many of them in the North. (3) Their troubling legacies include heavy metal leaching, wildlife habitat loss, polluted rivers and drinking water, the disruption of migratory routes and traditional food sources, and long-term social strains in northern communities. (4) Reclamation has the potential to help mitigate these negative impacts and ensure that development does not leave northerners worse off. Given that the federal government must spend nearly $7 billion to reclaim contaminated sites and that two abandoned northern mines (Giant in the Northwest Territories and Faro in the Yukon) top this list at $1.6 billion, the magnitude of these problems is appreciated even in distant Ottawa. (5)

Still, Jericho Mine's ongoing troubles are particularly disturbing given that politicians, bureaucrats, and industry representatives often differentiate between two periods of Canadian mining: an earlier era of regulatory laxness and limited reclamation, and its modern, enlightened counterpart from the 1980s onwards. (6) The former spawned disastrous inheritances: unremediated legacy mines, including orphaned or abandoned mines whose owners' bankruptcy or dissolution ensures that ownership reverts to the Crown. (7) The latter embraces technological innovations and cradle-to-grave planning, cementing reclamation's central role. However, recent mine abandonments, like Jericho or Yukon Zinc's Wolverine Mine, blur the line between these periods without a corresponding recognition of the problem by the government and the industry. (8) Much to northerners' frustration, abandoned mines and exploration sites continue to cause problems. (9) Attempts to resolve these challenges are complicated by a constantly evolving jurisdictional landscape that is shaped by modern land claims agreements and devolution.

The concern is that efforts to address recently abandoned mines do not go far enough in their consideration of local conditions and the breadth of cumulative problems. To communities still coping with the enduring reclamation challenges of mine sites abandoned decades ago, contemporary reclamation still falls short of addressing their concerns. By bridging detailed assessments of environmental reform and contaminated site management (10) and historical scholarship, (11) this article asks how policy-making has responded to mine and mineral exploration reclamation challenges. It distils policy documents, laws, research reports, and newspaper articles for a clear overview of current mine reclamation in the North. This article will be of interest to concerned parties grappling with a plethora of reclamation regulatory bodies and programs, from general mining and environmental legislation to measures designed to address specific mine sites. In an effort to share the findings of this research and engage in the ongoing dialogue on northern reclamation, elements of this article have been summarized in an accessible up-to-date poster. (12)

This article discusses the factors shaping mine reclamation and contemporary reclamation regimes in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories (NWT), Nunavut, northern Labrador, and Nunavik in northern Quebec. No overarching vision informs reclamation planning in the North. Instead of direction from the federal government in Ottawa, responsibility for policy-making now largely sits with provincial, territorial, and regional governments along with local land and water boards. Efforts to mitigate the impacts of new and legacy mines are complicated by the highly site-and case-specific nature of reclamation; the lack of a clear, ambitious technical and regulatory definition or vision of reclamation; and the jurisdictional overlap and governance issues associated with cleanup. Addressing these wider policy challenges in the North is crucial to meet the expansive, expensive demands of mine reclamation.

The problems are significant, but not hopeless. Remediation efforts, particularly those that draw on traditional knowledge and encourage local involvement, can mitigate and manage some of the worst impacts of Northern resource development. Policy reform such as strengthened regulations and more rigorous government enforcement will help facilitate this. However, it is worth remembering that reclamation can also exacerbate inequality and environmental problems. Effective reclamation demands more than a particular technological fix or planning strategy; it involves a candid discussion of the goals and limitations of reclamation projects, both past and present.

Canadian Reclamation in Context

Contemporary reclamation practice (also referred to as rehabilitation in Quebec and Newfoundland and remediation in the territories) (13) generally involves planning, engineering, and management strategies undertaken to help monitor, mitigate, and remove disturbances and pollution in areas affected by mining and mining-related activities. In the Canadian North, this can be tremendously difficult. Revegetating, removing buildings and equipment, covering physical hazards, backfilling mined-out pits, stabilizing waste piles, and containing hazardous materials for decades or even centuries make for daunting technical challenges. Remote locations, logistical barriers, limited government funding, and skilled labour shortages, combined with limited oversight and difficulties enforcing regulations, further complicate these efforts. (14)

Reclamation will not necessarily restore a site to its previous state. Some reclamation activities have actually stirred up contaminants, deepening community concerns about persistent environmental and health impacts. As John Sandlos and Arn Keeling write, potential redevelopment projects as well as the ongoing toxic legacies of mineral extraction revive the North's "zombie" mines so that true mine closure remains elusive. (15) Furthermore, the meaning of reclamation has changed over time. Rather than a task to be undertaken after operations cease, progressive reclamation strategies ensure that mitigation begins before an operation's official opening. At its best, reclamation includes ambitious, holistic land use strategies, habitat planning, and the comprehensive treatment of contaminants beyond those in the mine's immediate vicinity. Technical solutions are only the start: effective reclamation entails sound environmental stewardship and policy planning spanning decades and even centuries. Each reclamation project is unique, differentiated by disparate environments, industrial processes and byproducts, community expectations and input, and time scales stretching over months, years, and decades--all within complicated histories of resource extraction. Thus reclaiming the Yukon's Faro Mine, with its many millions of tonnes of waste rock and wet tailings, demands considerably more time, money, and expertise than reclaiming a small mine exploration site home to a half-dozen abandoned fuel barrels and a small area of contaminated soil.

When surveying the multitude of contemporary reclamation requirements, it is worth remembering that until the late 1970s and early 1980s, mining companies operated within a Canadian legal framework that was "open, straightforward, democratic, and encouraging," which is to say, deeply favourable to them and often inattentive to environmental concerns. (16) But by the late 1980s, sustained Aboriginal and settler activism, often in opposition to particular projects, led to more proactive (albeit still fragmentary) environmental policy-making as well as a greater recognition of Aboriginal land rights and the duty to consult with Aboriginal communities. (17) Public unease about the social and environmental impacts of mining across Canada spurred...

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