May 11, 2001

Cominco plots clean-up of Polaris mine

Site must be returned "as near as possible to the original state."

AARON SPITZER
Nunatsiaq News

The Polaris mine at Little Cornwallis Island.
(PHOTO COURTESY OF COMINCO)

IQALUIT — When Nunavut’s northernmost mine grinds to a halt next year, a new kind of work at the site will just be beginning.

After more than 20 years of running the Polaris lead-zinc mine in the remote and sometimes brutal high Arctic, its owner, Cominco Ltd., now faces the equally challenging task of returning the delicate landscape to its natural state.

Polaris, located on Little Cornwallis Island northwest of Resolute Bay, will shut down in July of 2002.

Since 1981, miners at the site have been tunneling into the High Arctic earth, digging out more than 21 million tonnes of lead-zinc ore. Added up, the value of the metal extracted from that ore totals a whopping $1.5 billion.

Polaris was originally slated to close this year, said John Knapp, the mine’s manager. But refined mining techniques and the discovery of small additional reserves spared its life for one more year.

There will be no new extensions, Knapp said.

Rebekah Uqi Williams, Nunavut’s MLA for the High Arctic, said Polaris’ clean-up will set a critical precedent for future mine closures in Nunavut.

"A lot of my concerns are environmental," she said.

According to Williams, even though Polaris sits on federal land rather than Inuit land, the remediation work must be as thorough as possible.

"Polar bears don’t know it’s Crown land," she said. "It makes a difference for government people, but for Inuit and animals it doesn’t make any difference."

According to Knapp, preliminary shut-down work at Polaris is already under way.

He said the mine is currently conducting what he calls "progressive reclamations": clean-ups that don’t interrupt day-to-day mining, such as the destruction of derelict buildings and the relocation of an old landfill.

"Polar bears don’t know it’s Crown land. It makes a difference for government people, but for Inuit and animals it doesn’t make any difference."

— MLA Rebekah Uqi Williams

But the real effort to remediate Little Cornwallis Island won’t swing into action until the last ounce of ore is extracted next summer.

Once that happens, Polaris’ 255 mine workers will be flown off the island for the last time. A small crew of Cominco managers will stay on site to oversee the clean-up, but most of the actual work will be done by other contractors.

Currently, the clean-up plans are tentative, subject to the approval of regulatory bodies like the Nunavut Water Board and the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Cominco submitted a proposed decommissioning-and-reclamation plan to those agencies in April. Interested parties — like Inuit organizations and the nearby hamlets and HTOs – will have a chance to weigh in on the plan up until September 30. By November a final plan should be in place.

According to Carl McLean, DIAND’s manager of land administration for Nunavut, the mine will be held to rigorous standards of cleanliness.

"I doubt if you’ll ever get it exactly to how it was before," he said. "But there’s a requirement in their land leases to return the land in a condition as near as possible to the original state."

As it stands now, Cominco hopes to bury most of the buildings and other items in a quarry on site. Knapp said encasing the debris in this permanent permafrost "tomb" will prevent leakage and the contamination of the surrounding environment.

Among the buildings slated for destruction is the mine’s 700-foot-long storage facility, which is the largest structure in Nunavut.

Some of the other mine’s buildings may be left standing — but only if regulatory bodies give special approval.

Cominco is offering the mine’s dormitory to anybody willing to buy it. They’ve approached the federal departments of Defense and Corrections, asking them if they’re interested — though Knapp acknowledges it’s unlikely Ottawa will want to build a penal colony on Little Cornwallis Island.

If nobody wants the dormitory, it, too, will be knocked down and buried.

Knapp said certain materials are either too dangerous or too valuable to be left on the island.

Hazardous materials, he said, will be shipped to disposal areas in the South. Any items still in their original packages will be returned to suppliers.

Items like furniture, pool tables and stereo equipment will be offered to residents in Resolute and Grise Fiord, Knapp said.

Because Polaris is an underground rather than an open-pit mine, disturbance to the actual surface of the land has been comparatively minimal.

After the two-year clean-up is complete, site monitoring and water sampling will be conducted by environmental contractors until 2011.

After that, if the various regulatory bodies deem the area sufficiently clean, the land will be turned back over to the federal government, which currently leases the site to Cominco.