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Water Today Title October 25, 2021

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Update 2019/5/19
Mining Cluff Lake part 2


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By Gillian Ward

For ORANO Canada, the Cluff Lake story may be in its final chapter, the winding down of corporate responsibility at ten years post-decommissioning. For residents of northwest Saskatchewan, the Cluff Lake story is far from over. Intervenors came forward in record numbers to address the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) May 15, 2019. WaterToday brings Part II of Cluff Lake coverage, as ORANO Canada's pitches for a reduced financial liability for the site.

As the owner/operating entity of Cluff Lake Uranium Mine and Mill, ORANO Canada, (formerly AREVA, Cogema, AMOK Ltd) retains responsibility for environmental monitoring for a period of time following decommissioning, including financial liability for monitoring and unforeseen impacts requiring intervention. The focus of the Commission hearing was to address the next five-year period, and the corporate request for limited financial liability.

Environmental and nuclear scientists from Saskatchewan Environment, ORANO Canada, CNSC and private industry have been involved at various stages in planning and oversight of the mine's decommissioning, with the Canadian nuclear industry regulator concluding that the Cluff Lake mine "meets all conditions". Local residents that took part in the Cluff Lake Inquiry of 1978 and worked at the mine through its two decades of operations have a significantly different perspective.

The disconnect in the Cluff Lake narrative is the subject of this WaterToday report.

Mining, being a relatively short-term activity, disturbs an area for a period of years or decades, creating economic benefits through employment and supply contracts, "upping the bracket" for local lifestyle and expectations, eventually closing up and returning the area to its former undisturbed state.

When uranium exploration was in full forward gear in Saskatchewan, most northerners were occupied in traditional lifestyles, hunting, trapping and fishing. Local concerns about the proposed new industry were predictable and natural, with fear of the unknown begging for evidence and assurance that the risk and hazards associated with uranium mining could be managed. The Cluff Lake Inquiry visited northern communities in 1978, consulting locals, making assurances of economic benefits and environmental security, and ultimately making recommendation toward the approval of the mining license. The Cluff Lake Inquiry Final Report also emphasized the need for and importance of enforcement of decommissioning standards as a necessary check and balance on the developing industry.

A full decade has now passed since the work of decommissioning the Cluff Lake mine site was completed. Ten years of environmental monitoring by ORANO and Saskatchewan have accumulated. CNSC stated for the record that they rely on the monitoring reports as submitted by the mining companies. To this point, all activities have passed the regulatory requirements and the process continues toward release of corporate responsibility.

WaterToday reported earlier on the concerns brought forward by three former employees of the Cluff Lake Mine and Mill:

Mr. Rodney Gardiner was acting site manager during decommissioning at Cluff Lake. He has been vocal with his concerns for years, communicating with his former employer, the CNSC and more recently, the media. Gardiner is calling for deeper cover to be applied over the Cluff tailings pond, an area the size of 450 soccer fields, to protect the moose that are attracted to the salts from the tailings, brought to the surface by rocks and metal scraps that push up from the tailings during every spring thaw.

Kelly Daigneault took his concerns to Saskatchewan Environment and CNSC about having dumped barrels of processed yellowcake into the tailings pond in the final days of his employment, believing that animals browsing on the vegetation there today would be unsafe to eat. Mr. Daigneault doubts that this area will be safe for thousands of years in the future, based on the very training he received as a lead hand supervisor at the mill.

Ed Flett has been writing letters warning that there are soft spots in the road through the Cluff Lake site, near his family cabin, that indicate movement of ground water, contrary to corporate reporting.

Since our first report on this subject, more intervenors have come forward with submissions to the CNSC, including local outfitter Emile Burnouf, concerned that his livelihood is threatened by public perception that the water and animals are contaminated.

Chiefs from around the Athabasca region attended in Ottawa or by video feed, along with Elders, the Indigenous Knowledge Keepers.

The CNSC heard its first reports of the day from ORANO and CNSC staff that the Cluff Lake area environment is secure, and measures taken in decommissioning are performing as expected, with sediments, water, vegetation and animal test results being satisfactory.

Radioactive hazard signage has been removed from the Cluff Lake site, with no visible marker left to tell passers-by of the industrial history here. Whether radioactive tailings have dissolved into the ground water or not, and whether those elements are moving through the environment, making their way into vegetation and the animals that graze and browse that vegetation is a matter for long term environmental monitoring. The results of such monitoring to date were summarized and presented in a general manner, indicating that all is well.

Chief Teddy Clark of the Clearwater River Dene Nation (CRDN) told the Commission that he is pleased to hear ORANO and CNS staff reporting the "all-clear", if this is true. The CRDN people have doubts in the security of the Cluff Lake site, based on previous experience. According to the delegation from CRDN, northern people are avoiding the area and many will not accept offers of wild meat taken from Cluff Lake.

Communication with the doubting local population is critical, as the gap in perspective and understanding is significant. Many locals have worked at the mine, and their first hand experiences have been transmitted to friends and family, leaving the impression that the site could not be safe. Chief Clark would like to believe the good reports but says there is a need for closer partnership with mining companies going forward. The people do appreciate the jobs in mining but need to be more involved in the environmental management and monitoring to understand what the CNSC has deemed safe and secure.

Indigenous outfitter Emile Burnouf submitted a written statement to the Commission, detailing how his livelihood comes from taking hunters out for moose and bear just a few kilometres downstream of Cluff Lake mine site. He had concerns about the future of his business, whether the water is truly safe or the animals are truly safe to hunt and consume, and even so, will his clientele believe? Speculation from local residents had cast a pall of gloom over the Cluff Lake area, understandably upsetting the mood for tourism visitation. If Mr. Burnouf had been present at the Commission hearing, he may have been relieved to hear laboratory results reported by Dr. James Irvine, indicating that moose taken from Cluff Lake area test lower in contaminants than beef products, and are as good as the moose from any other part of the country.

Intervenors expressed a wide range of perspectives. Val Drummond, retired teacher and former resident of Ile a la Crosse attended the Cluff Lake Inquiry in the late 70's, where community consultations took place and first impressions of the uranium mine were made. Her intervention drew attention to the disconnect between what she sees as two distinctly different narratives of Cluff Lake. The company and the CNSC tell a "Miracle Story", that after 22 years of mining millions of cubic meters of high grade radioactive material, the site is now perfectly clean. The alternate story includes contradictory information from firsthand witnesses.

While northern residents were assured during the 1978 Inquiry that the highly radioactive hazardous materials from Phase I mining would be sealed in concrete vaults for secure long-term storage, ORANO company representative Dale Huffman chuckled at the mention of concrete containers before the CNSC hearing. Huffman stated that concrete containers like "septic tanks" were used for temporary storage of material containing gold. The company stored the gold-laced material for a short time in concrete vaults while the permits and process could be set up for recovering the gold. After the material was processed, the concrete containers were crumbled up and buried in the tailings, according to Huffman.

The contradiction of accounts in the matter of the concrete vaults appears to be another tentacle to the root of doubt and confusion. Clearly published in the Cluff Lake Inquiry Final Report, sealed concrete vaults were the assured safeguard for long term storage of the most highly radioactive waste materials produced at Cluff Lake mine and mill. Perhaps the ORANO representative was unaware of this point of confusion, and possibly these were not the same concrete vaults that were used for temporary storage.

Rod Gardiner claims the concrete vaults are one and the same, but after they tipped from frost-heaved ground and cracked, the long-term storage option was off the table. Tim Moulding of Saskatchewan Environment had previously explained to WaterToday that the tailings pond was "engineered" to handle anything from the mine. If this is true, it would not matter whether the concrete vaults were upright, intact and sealed or broken up and pushed into the pit by heavy machinery, there would be no risk to the environment either way. This is another matter to be reconciled, especially important for people that attended and still remember the Cluff Lake Inquiry meetings of 1978.

ORANO staff Dale Huffman further explained that the tailings area cover, also referred to as an "engineered cover", was not meant to be packed, not meant to be a cap on the tailings. The fill material was intended to protect the tailings from animal intrusion, and to shield the environment from radon gas, according to Huffman. The specific make-up of the tailings was paired with the specific make-up of the fill, all coordinated to work together to meet the required environmental parameters, as set and approved by the CNSC and Saskatchewan Environment.

The cover of three feet depth was not meant to be packed, according to Huffman, but according to the 1978 Cluff Lake Inquiry Final Report, three feet of packed fill was expected to shield just 30% of radon emissions from the tailings. The gap between the technical specifications and public understanding may have peaked at this point in the the hearing, but as the agenda was full, the process marched forward, leaving unresolved conundrums for many.

CNSC Committee members did a commendable work to prepare for the hearing, demonstrating a depth of understanding of the submissions going beyond what was presented orally by some intervenors. Each commission member thoughtfully referred the intervenors to their own written submissions, asking for details that through time constraints may have been left unsaid.

The Commission questioned why Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, First Nations and Metis Nation representatives have not been included as part of the Northwest Saskatchewan Environmental Quality Committee, which is comprised of representatives from 30 northern communities. It was explained that while Environmental Quality Committee (EQC) members may be appointed by their municipality or Indigenous community, the committee members are compensated for attendance at meetings called and presented by industry and/or the Province. The intent of the EQC is to ensure all northern communities are informed and able to ask questions, with information taken back and disseminated among the communities. It was explained that there are no representatives on the EQC for the duly elected representatives of the Metis or First Nations. Darren Thomas responded for the EQC, stating that this represents one forum for consultation and not the only consultation that the companies or the Province undertake.

When Commission member Penney questioned why Island Lake, with uranium levels up to ten times the Saskatchewan standard, has been proposed to be released from the scope of the ORANO license area, she did not seem satisfied with the explanation, restating her question more than once. Snake Lake is to remain within the license area, with acceptable levels of uranium, but Island Lake is proposed to be outside the bounds, with excess uranium. According to ORANO spokesman, Dale Huffman, the scope of the license area has been proposed by his company to exclude certain lakes, but ORANO will continue to monitor in and out-of-scope locations.

While some intervenors made statements of support for ORANO's corporate request for a five-year license extension and a reduced financial liability, the Indigenous leaders also presented calls to action for more effective relations in future mining ventures. The official representatives of the Clearwater River, Fond du Lac, Hatchet Lake, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations weighed in before the Commission with Elder Keith Janvier addressing the group in his language. The translator conveyed the message to the Commission, underscoring the importance of engaging with Indigenous peoples on their terms, in their languages with full and real partnership and participation.

Chief Teddy Clark of the Clearwater River Dene Nation spoke of gratitude for the jobs created in mining, and appreciation for ORANO but also chided the company for weak attempts at engagement. Just coming into the community "to say hello" is not engagement, according to Chief Clark.

When Commission members asked for a clear description of what full partnership would look like, at least two of the Indigenous leaders presenting used the term walking together and holding hands. Chief Clark explained, his members don't want the companies coming with a policy manual and decisions already made. CRDN prefers to work together with the industry to develop what happens in their traditional territories.

The last to speak, President of the Metis Nation Local #62, Marlene Hansen gave credit to her mentor, the late Phillip Chartier of Buffalo Narrows. Chartier had been a Buffalo Narrows son, sawmill owner-operator, husband, father and grandfather, known for tireless advocacy for the Metis and for Saskatchewan's northwest in general. May 16 is Mr. Chartier's birthday, and fittingly, the President of Local 62 dedicated her intervention to his memory.

Mrs. Hansen presented the Friedman and Miles "Ladder of Stakeholder Management and Engagement" model. From her intervention remarks, "You will notice that this ladder has twelve rungs whereby there is a progression from the lowest to the highest levels of participation. During this speech, take a look at this ladder and reflect on the level you believe ORANO has engaged the Buffalo Narrow M├ętis Local 62 Community."

"It is important you comprehend that our understanding differs significantly from yours."

From the perspective of the Metis Nation Local 62, it was stated that ORANO had not gone beyond the first step of Engagement, which Friedman and Miles have identified as "manipulation/non-participation." According to Hansen, whenever questions were raised at ORANO sponsored meetings for community consultation, there were threats, bullying and intimidation to drop the matters of concern. Many issues were brought to the Metis Nation Local by employees of the mines. The employees had been trained on the risk and hazards posed by radioactive materials, only to witness incidents where radioactive materials were handled in a manner contradictory to the training. These concerns witnessed in all the uranium mines were brought up confidentially with the Metis Nation leadership, to be pursued face to face during the corporate consultation meetings. This was done to protect the identity of the employee "complainant" so that they might not lose their job for speaking up in defense of public or environmental security.

When Commission members asked for clarification on what Mrs. Hansen referred to as "bullying", she stated that consultation meetings were cut short, microphones turned off to avoid dealing with certain questions and certain questioners. Mrs. Hansen told WaterToday that the late Phillip Chartier was often shut down in these "consultation" meetings, including a time when a member of the northern media engaged in public shouting at Mrs. Hansen as she spoke to defend Chartier's right to ask questions.

Humility was demonstrated by ORANO representatives, who stated that the company can always improve upon their community engagement and relationships. As for the claims of bullying, the matter was sidestepped as the specific events were unknown to the present staff and presumed not to be a factor for future behaviour by ORANO.

As for the relationship between ORANO and northern stakeholders, Indigenous communities, First Nations and Metis governance structures, certain truths are clear. Communication is key, intentions are felt, discrepancies are noted, trust is built or trust is eroded. In the case of industries operating in the north, economic benefits were to have been shared, with at least 50% of new employment going to northern residents. Chief Clark reminded the Commission that this is another example of a discrepancy between statements and experience, where trust has been eroded in relationship to the mining company and CNSC.

At the conclusion of the hearing, is seems there is still much work to do. Establishing the facts on the environmental testing and contaminant levels and mobility may take independent testing with Indigenous oversight. While the Commission may grant ORANO the reduced financial liability as requested, the interventions heard by the Commission may have set the bar a notch higher for future mining operations in Canada's remote areas.


Company suspected of 'cutting corners' during decommissioning of Cluff Lake uranium mine, SK

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