Saskatchewan files suit over mine remediation costs

29 November 2018

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has filed a lawsuit calling on the government of Canada to contribute equally to the cost of cleaning up the site of the former Gunnar uranium mine.

The Gunnar mine site, pictured in 2015 (Image: SRC)

The statement of claim was filed on 27 November and followed "numerous, unsuccessful attempts" by the provincial government to work collaboratively with the federal government on the clean-up of the abandoned mine site on the shores of Lake Athabasca, the government of Saskatchewan said.

The federal government is committed to share the costs of decommissioning Gunnar, which operated from 1955 to 1964, under the terms of a 2006 Memorandum of Agreement, but has so far provided "just" CAD1.13 million (USD987,000), the government of Saskatchewan said. The provincial government has to date spent more than CAD125 million on the clean-up of the Gunnar site and its associated satellite sites. The total estimated cost of the remediation project is CAD280 million.

The Gunnar deposit was discovered in 1952 and by 1956 had become the world's largest uranium mine. Operations included mining from an open pit to a depth of 110 metres and later from an underground mine reaching depths of over 600 metres. The mine site developed into a small community that included an airstrip, indoor mall, bowling lanes, a hospital and residences for 800 people.

Minimal decommissioning was carried out after the mine's closure in 1964. Mine operator Gunnar Mining Ltd had ceased to exist by the mid-1980s, and management of the site is now the responsibility of the province of Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government in the 1940s declared uranium mining to be in the national interest, making it the only provincial natural resource regulated by federal government. As such - and as an industry that existed "exclusively due to the decisions and priorities of the federal government" - the federal government must provide its equal share of funding for the remediation project, Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre said.

"After repeated requests to the federal government to honour its joint obligations … we are left with no choice [but to file the lawsuit]," she said. "We implore the federal government to pay its fair share of continuing remediation work."

The remediation of Gunnar, along with the Lorado uranium mill site and 35 satellite mine sites in northern Saskatchewan, is being carried out by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC). The remediation includes the demolition and burial of 84 structures including the uranium mill, two acid plants, a large headframe, uranium processing buildings and community buildings. SRC began demolition work, which also involved abatement of asbestos which was widely used in the buildings, in 2010. All demolition work at the site has now been completed.

A barrier has been constructed around the open pit, and work has been undertaken to remove physical, chemical, radiological and biological hazards. Further remediation activities will include the disposal of demolition materials, installation of an appropriate cover on all, or a portion of, the exposed mill tailings and waste rock, re-vegetating and water treatment, and monitoring both during and after rehabilitation.

"The provincial government takes this project, and the environmental remediation of the affected regions, very seriously," Eyre said. "The federal government agreed to cost-share this project equally, but has since refused to uphold its end of the agreement."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News