The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development for Canada, Jerry DeMarco, recently released five audit reports.

The first of the five reports deals with the clean-up of contaminated sites in northern Canada. The audit examined contaminated sites in northern Canada, which continue to carry significant health, environmental, and financial risks. The auditor found that Transport Canada and Crown‑Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada—which manage many of these sites—complied with the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan. However, this was not enough for the program to meet its objectives of reducing the health, environmental, and financial risks associated with these sites.

In the report, the auditor states that the Canada‑wide financial liability for known federal contaminated sites has increased from $2.9 billion to $10.1 billion since the launch of the action plan in 2005. While only 11% of sites are in the North, over 60% of Canada’s total estimated financial liability is linked to the remediation of northern sites. This is an enormous financial burden on taxpayers and represents a failure to properly implement the “polluter pays” principle, as many private sector sites had to be taken over by the federal government.

After 20 years, much work is still needed to reduce the financial liability related to contaminated sites and to lower environmental and human health risks for current and future generations. As well, the government needs to take urgent action to advance socio-economic benefits, including employment opportunities, and to support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples whose lands are often affected by contaminated sites.

Major Findings

Contaminated sites represent significant environmental and human health risks and cost Canadians billions of dollars. Contaminated sites in northern Canada have not been managed to reduce the financial liability under the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan and the Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. Although work was undertaken to remediate contaminated sites, the total financial liability for federal contaminated sites is now over $10 billion. In addition, gaps remained in practices intended to reduce the risks to the environment and human health for current and future generations.

The audit found that Environment and Climate Change Canada, with the support of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, did not effectively lead the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan. Transport Canada and Crown‑Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, which manage contaminated sites in the North, complied with the program, but the audit found this was not enough for the program to meet its Canada‑wide objectives. For example, the cost for remediating contaminated sites keeps increasing for Canadians. Also, the program did not appropriately support custodians by including climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in remediation efforts, which are key priorities related to the management of contaminated sites.

Complex sites that require ongoing care and maintenance—such as the large abandoned Faro and Giant mines—present immediate and long-term risks to the environment and health of Canadians. For example, the Faro Mine requires ongoing maintenance for the foreseeable future to prevent contaminated water from polluting surrounding areas, and the Giant Mine requires a large volume of arsenic to remain frozen underground. The cost to remediate the 8 largest abandoned mines in the North has increased by 95% since 2019 due to several factors, including more accurate estimates to reflect the scope of work required to address these sites. As the responsible organization managing these mines, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada had gaps in its approach for considering climate change adaptation and perpetual care plans.

As these sites often stand on Indigenous land, the remediation of contaminated sites in the North provides a significant opportunity to support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and promote economic development. During the course of the audit, the environmental commissioner heard from some Indigenous communities that these opportunities have yet to be realized.

Recommendations

The report provides three major recommendations to address the issues associated with contamination in Northern Canada as follows:

  • To achieve the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan’s objective of reducing the financial liability, Environment and Climate Change Canada, working with program partners, should support custodians in reducing financial liability.
  • To achieve the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan’s objective of reducing the environmental and human health risks, Environment and Climate Change Canada, working with program partners, should directly measure environmental and human health risk reduction, improve quality assessment and quality control for key program elements and develop a consistent approach for custodians to document and report on key program priorities.
  • To improve its management of large abandoned mines in the North under the Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program, Crown‑Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada should enhance the reliability of the liability estimates and reduce environmental risks and improve transparency for current and future generations.