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July 14, 2024
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By Gillian Ward

Open shafts, empty warehouses, garbage and uncontained tailings sit quietly in the northern landscape. Aside from the people that live next door to Canada's abandoned mines, the matter is out of sight, out of mind. WaterToday looked to the National Orphaned/Abandoned Mines Initiative (NOAMI) searchable database www.noami.org to find out more.

Participation in the NOAMI database is optional for provinces and territories, as each jurisdiction has its own mining legislation, with terms and definitions varying across the country. Orphaned or abandoned mines have been left unresolved by the owners, becoming a liability and burden on the jurisdiction where they are located.

Abandoned mines are categorized by the level of risk presented to public and environmental security, with Class A being the highest risk class. The NOAMI contact for Geology Ontario, Marc Stewart, explained that the NOAMI portal is a scaled down version of the provincial database, with limited functionality. With a search of the NOAMI database set to show the highest risk abandoned mines in Canada, we retrieved a list of twelve Class A mines. Topping this list, Gunnar and Lorado uranium mines, located at the epi-centre of richest uranium deposit in the world, Saskatchewan.

The approval process for a new mine includes detailed plans for the mine's closure. The proposed mining plan must comply with several Acts of legislation, detailing specifics for closure of the mine (decommissioning) and providing the funds to carry out lifetime monitoring of the site. From our research in the University of Saskatchewan archives, the Bayda Inquiry of 1977 established the requirement for engagement of the impacted population, including local participation in the economic benefits of the mine and duty to consult at each development stage. If the mining operation fails, responsibility for the mine closure, clean up and monitoring falls back to the Province, or in the special case of uranium mines, the Province and the federal government.

In 1940, uranium mining was declared a matter of national interest, becoming the only natural resource under federal regulation. Canada and Saskatchewan together approved Gunnar Mine and Mill to begin operating in 1955 on the shores of Lake Athabasca. By 1956 Gunnar was the largest uranium mine in the world. Closed in 1964, and with the operating company out of business, Gunnar Mine has become a $280 million liability for its federal and provincial keepers.

Fifty-five years after its closure, Gunnar uranium mine remains a Class A risk. According to a press statement from Saskatchewan Energy and Resources dated November 28, 2018, Saskatchewan has spent over $125 million on the Gunnar clean up, while the federal government has contributed little more than one million to the effort. After many unsuccessful attempts to collect from the federal government, Saskatchewan has issued a Statement of Claim for the federal government's share of remediation cost.

Fifty-five years after its closure,
Gunnar uranium mine remains a Class A risk.

Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) has been tasked with the clean up of Gunnar and Lorado. SRC communications staff tell us that the Lorado site has been fully decommissioned and is currently in the monitoring phase. Gunnar site is a work in progress. Public meetings have been conducted in the Athabasca basin, however, SRC does not communicate with NOAMI. Saskatchewan Energy and Resources is expected to appoint a new contact for NOAMI in 2019. WaterToday will follow the progress on Gunnar mine, reporting as the situation progresses.

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