Successfully Reclaiming Old Mining Sites in Northern Ontario
March 28, 2012
The Elliot Lake region in Northern Ontario was one of the first areas in the country where uranium mining and milling activities took place, starting in the 1950s. At the time, environmental protection standards that applied to the uranium sector were not what they are now and some localized ecological damage was often left behind. Major decommissioning and reclamation projects have since been successfully completed near Elliot Lake. Today, affected sites have recovered and the quality of the environment is steadily improving.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates these old uranium mining sites. It closely monitors how well sites are being maintained and their environmental performance. In total, there are 11 old uranium mines and 9 tailings management areas (TMAs) in the Serpent River Watershed Basin near Elliot lake. Two companies – Rio Algom and Denison Mines Inc. – operated and decommissioned the sites, with decommissioning starting in 1992 and lasting for a decade.
As part of their environmental stewardship, both companies jointly carry out the long-term management and monitoring of the sites. Together, they are implementing the Serpent River Watershed Monitoring Program (SRWMP), an extensive program that tracks trends in environmental quality across the basin and near one site that lies outside of the watershed. The SRWMP was designed in consultation with federal and provincial regulators, including the CNSC, and has been updated twice since its inception in 2000.
One of the key findings of the SRWMP is that current releases to the environment are extremely low. There are virtually no measurable impacts away from the licensed areas.
The CNSC regularly reviews monthly water quality data, annual reports and state-of-environment reports, which are produced every 5 years. CNSC inspectors also visit sites periodically, paying special attention to water treatment facilities, as well as to completed, ongoing or proposed maintenance activities.
An independent third-party review of all geotechnical work is completed every 7 years, as recommended by the Canadian Dam Association. The outcomes of the radiation protection and public information programs, as well as the adequacy of financial guarantees in place, are also subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny.
On March 29, the CNSC is holding a public meeting, available via webcast, to discuss the interim five-year report on the environmental and overall performance of the reclaimed 9 sites managed by Rio Algom. CNSC experts and representatives from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Rio Algom will be at the meeting.
About modern waste management practices
The recently published RD/GD-370, Management of Uranium Mine Waste Rock and Mill Tailings, sets out the CNSC’s requirements for the sound management of mine waste rock and mill tailings during site preparation, construction, operation and decommissioning of new uranium mine or mill projects and new waste management facilities at existing uranium mines and mills.
These requirements are to ensure protection of the environment and the health and safety of people.
One of the main requirements identified in the document, for long-term management of mineralized waste rock and tailings, is that mining companies avoid using natural bodies of water inhabited by fish to the extent practicable.
Did you know?
Canada’s uranium mining sector is somewhat unique in how it is regulated: it has a dedicated regulator, the CNSC, which oversees all sensitive safety areas (such as radiation protection, waste management, security, and emergency management).
- Most recent Serpent River Watershed State of the Environment Report, 2005-2010 (PDF)
- RD/GD-370, Management of Uranium Mine Waste Rock and Mill Tailings
- Uranium Mines and Mills in Canada
Commission Member Documents
- Interim Status Report on Rio Algom Limited Elliot Lake Historic Mine and Tailings Management Sites, March 29, 2012 Request document Interim Status Report on Rio Algom Limited Elliot Lake Historic Mine and Tailings Management Sites by Email
- CNSC staff presentation, Elliot Lake Historic Sites, March 29, 2012 Request document CNSC staff presentation, Elliot Lake Historic Sites by Email
- Written submission from Northwatch, March 29, 2012 Request document Written submission from Northwatch by Email
- Written submission from Serpent River First Nation, March 29, 2012 Request document Written submission from Serpent River First Nation by Email