Improving Federal Stewardship of Contaminated Sites

Speaking Notes for the Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P. Minister of the Environment

Giant Mine, Yellowknife, NWT
August 2, 2005


Minister Stéphane Dion
Speech delivered by the
Hon. Stéphane Dion P.C., M.P., Minister of the Environment

Check against delivery

Seagia … Daah t'e

After nearly two centuries of heavy industrialization, our planet is riddled with a frightening number of contaminated sites.

Dispersed across urban, rural and even wilderness areas, these millions and millions of contaminated sites, hazardous legacy from past military, industrial, mining, smelting, manufacturing and farming activities, are putting at risk the health and security of hundreds of millions of human beings worldwide.

In Canada, contamination occurred at gas stations, factories, mines, military bases, tank farms, airports, laboratories, landfills, lighthouse stations and harbours, to name but a few.

It is estimated that there are, in our country, tens of thousands of these contaminated sites, the vast majority of which are privately held or owned by provincial, territorial or municipal governments.

And the federal government has its share of them. Since 2002, we have an Inventory of Federal Contaminated Sites. As of today, you will find listed on this inventory a little bit more than 4000 sites. And this number is likely to grow to an estimated 6000, as departments complete the identification of their sites.

Some of the practices that led to today's problems were due to ignorance or negligence. But we should bear in mind that the practices that caused the contamination were often carried out in a much different social, legal and scientific context. These practices would not be tolerated today, but in the past they were often common practice and they often met the standard of the day.

We have inherited the problem, and we must solve it. Today, our knowledge has increased, our environmental standards are higher and we all know that the contamination cannot be left to fester and continue to damage our ecosystems. We know what needs to be done: prevent new contamination and clean up the mess inherited from the past.

And we will do it.

True, remediation is a lengthy and complex process that is both costly and time consuming.

True, the variety of situations adds to the complexity : there is little in common between major sites such as the abandoned mine where we are, and smaller sites with lower levels of contamination. Contaminated sites found across the country range from the large to the small - from sites where fuel oil has spilled over many years, to large derelict industrial and mine sites such as the Giant Mine. The costs to deal with these contaminated sites vary, but they can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are contaminated sites in urban areas, and many others are located in remote regions with harsh climates.

True, it is impossible to work at some of these locations year-round, which lengthens the time required to remediate the sites.

All this is true.

But remediation of these sites is the right thing to do, and the government of Canada will do it. This is the clearly expressed will of our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Paul Martin.

We will do it without undue delay, using the appropriate approaches and the best available technologies. And in doing so, remediation will create new economic opportunities for affected communities, but also for the whole country: potential for redevelopment, new jobs in the environmental industry, and new innovative technologies.

Indeed, the remediation of contaminated sites will spur the development and commercialization of these new technologies, since many of these sites present challenges that cannot always be addressed cost effectively with existing technologies. The Government of Canada strongly believes that Canada has the potential to become a world leader in environmental technologies. This is borne out by Budget 2005, which also contains measures to support development of these technologies.

Yes, we will address federal contaminated sites with stronger dedication and commitment. Until recently, federal departments were on their own to manage or remediate sites for which they were responsible. They were investing about $100 million per year, but without coordination. Progress was slow.

The government spent an additional $175 million over two years from 2003 to 2005, over and above what the departments were already spending, to accelerate action on federal contaminated sites. This was a good beginning. But not enough for our Prime Minister. The 2004 budget provided a further announcement of $3.5 billion in long-term funding for federal sites, plus $500 million for shared responsibility sites.

Now, the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP) is on a solid footing.

The goal of the Action Plan is to complete, within 15 years, the assessment, remediation and risk management of all of the estimated 6000 federal contaminated sites. We will reach this goal, all together.

This is good news for the North. You live with the impact of these abandoned mines and they are affecting your fragile ecosystem and your quality of life. You need this action plan: an estimated 60 percent of the Action Plan allocated funds will be spent on the federal sites in the North. And this will bring, indeed, potential for redevelopment, new jobs and new economic activities.

Already, you have your success stories. Aboriginal firms participating in remediation activities are helping create jobs for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and further strengthen the local economies.

Allow me now to explain briefly how the Action Plan proceeds. Among all the federal sites on the inventory, each custodial department identified those sites that pose the greatest human health and ecological risks, and are ready for remediation : preliminary assesments, consultations with communities and other interested groups, all this needed work has been done.

Now, it is time to act. And this brings me to the announcement that I am so pleased to make today, an important step in the Action Plan :

I announce that for this fiscal year, 2005-2006, the federal government will commit $138.7 million to deal with 97 highest risk sites identified under the Action Plan. In addition to these $138.7 million, a further $14.3 million is set aside for the assessment of approximately 500 sites in 2005-2006 to determine whether further action is required. And remember : this is over and above the approximately 100 million$ already committed annually to the management of federal sites by custodial departments and agencies.

The 97 priority sites, identified for 2005-06, are located in all regions of the country, but 30 of them are in the North. Of the overall $138.7M in project funding for this year, almost $100M will be distributed among Northern sites.

I am releasing today the list of these 97 sites, with, for each of them, the federal departement responsible for its remediation. For the NorthWest Territories, you will find listed : Colomac Mine, Silver Bear Mines, Tundra-Taurcanis Mine, Discovery Mine, Axe Point, Atkinson Point, Port Radium Mine and last but not least, exactly where we are today: Giant Mine.

Giant Mine: after 50 years of operation, there are approximately 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic arsenic trioxide stored underground. In addition, arsenic-contaminated buildings,soils, and tailings on the site represent hazards to human health and the environment. There is potential for the release of arsenic dust from contaminated sources on the surface.

What to do? The "polluter pays" principle cannot apply since the company went bankrupt in 1999 and the site has since been transferred to the federal government, a month ago.

Your federal government will not shirk its responsibility. Along with our partners in the Giant Mine Remediation Project Team, after consulting extensively with the community, and taking into account the recommendations of a panel of independent experts, we selected the best remedial method under the circumstances.

Above ground, the land will be restored. Below ground, full decontamination is a complex challenge and we have not found the permanent solution yet; so while we look for it, the strategy will be to contain and monitor the contaminants to prevent them from affecting the surrounding environment.

I want to thank all our partners who worked so hard to find the solution, including the Government of Northwest Territories, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the community of Yellowknife, environmental groups, industry and all the experts involved. And, of course, your tireless Member of Parliament, our Minister of State for Northern Development, la grande dame des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, the Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrew.

In my introduction, I acknowledged the spirit of leadership and partnership that has allowed a wide range of interest to come to terms with such problems as the Giant Mine.

In concluding, I want to thank you all again, representatives of the First Nations, the Community Advisory Committee, the city of Yellowknife, the Government of the NorthWest Territories and my federal government colleagues.

Thank you, all of you, and all my other federal colleagues and federal officials that I did not mention, for helping ensure that the North, and Canada as a whole, remain a good place to live in, a model of environmental stewardship.

In dealing with contaminated sites, our goal is to change liabilities into gains, to protect the environment and human health, and ultimately to restore these sites so that they can be enjoyed again by Canada's communities North and South of the 60th parallel.

In some cases, it will take time to reach these goals. But in the mean time, no effort will be spared to manage the pain and to prevent further damage. The Government of Canada is coming up not only with money and resources, but also with:

I assure you that your federal government will be the good partner you deserve, so that together, we can continue to work to preserve Canada's environment for the well-being of all its citizens, today and for the generations to come.

Thank you, Merci,

Mahsi Cho.