With pickaxes and pans in hand, tens of thousands of people flooded the Yukon in 1896 in search of gold in its snowy creeks. Three years later, the rush came to an abrupt end as miners left for Alaska. Fast forward to 1991, when diamonds were discovered in the Northwest Territories’ (NWT’s) Slave Geological Province. This discovery set off a mining boom in northern Canada that continues today. According to the Mining Association of Canada, companies are expected to invest $140 billion over the next ten years in search of minerals like diamonds, gold, and iron, primarily in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but also in the Yukon.

In the barren, remote expanse of Canada’s circumpolar region—only 100,000 people live across the three territories—oversight and regulation is difficult. This is particularly problematic as climate change renders many current mining standards inadequate. Lakes and streams scattered across the tundra are vulnerable to destruction, leachate, and tailings.

As the rush for northern metals and minerals continues, good planning and tough oversight by mining companies, indigenous stakeholders, and government are necessary to protect water resources.

Damage done

Mine construction can wreak havoc before the byproducts of mining even have a chance to pollute the environment. In 1998, BHP Billiton opened the Ekati Diamond Mine, Canada’s first combined underground and surface diamond mine, in the NWT’s Lac de Gras area. To reach the diamond-strewn kimberlite pipes sitting underneath shallow crater lakes, the company dewatered and fully or partially impacted nineteen lakes and additional streams. The company was also permitted to store rocks and manage pit water in Desperation Pond, used by Arctic grayling (a freshwater fish) for spawning, rearing, forage, and overwintering.

While the company paid Fisheries and Oceans Canada $1.5 million to recreate lost lake habitat, the new lakes did not equal the original ones in health and biodiversity. In one artificial habitat, colder stream water and paltrier vegetation resulted in Arctic grayling that had, on average, less than half as much mass as their counterparts in natural streams. Northern fish species reproduce and grow slowly and are especially sensitive to pollutants, making lake destruction even more harmful than in the south. Moreover, many fish stocks provide commercial value to fishermen and nutritional value to indigenous peoples.

Mining can threaten aquatic ecosystems long after initial lake contamination. While BHP Billiton champions Ekati’s annual production of three per cent of the world’s weight in rough diamonds, little is said of the approximately 40 million tons of waste rock that also come out of the mine each year. Ground-up rocks, or tailings, left over from the milling process separating the ore from the minerals must be dumped into an impoundment pond.

The Canadian government has enacted legislation that has created such ponds at the cost of endangering aquatic ecosystems. In 2002, Schedule II of the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations reclassified one lake in the NWT and three lakes in Nunavut as “tailings impoundment areas.” Agnico-Eagle, which operates Nunavut’s Meadowbank Gold Mine, weathered criticism for dumping tailings into one such lake, despite choosing it with Inuit approval as the best location environmentally, operationally, and economically.

Ramsey Hart, Mining Watch Canada’s program coordinator, suggests that an alternative, though more expensive, way to deal with tailings might be to store them on land in a cement-like, hardened form. “This allows you to have a close to walk-away situation, where you aren’t also destroying a lake ecosystem,” he says.

Changing paradigms

Indigenous pressure has helped enact stricter oversight of mines. During negotiations over Ekati, First Nations organizations got BHP Billiton to agree to fund the creation of an Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency (IEMA) to oversee their management of the surrounding environment. BHP Billiton also developed a Watershed Adaptive Management Plan. When the IEMA discovered that nearby Kodiak Lake had begun eutrophying due to sewage deposition, making oxygen levels dangerously low for fish, the company was asked to aerate the lake. The fish were able to survive another season. When oxygen levels dropped a second time, the company began depositing its sewage elsewhere. While adaptive management requires consistent environmental monitoring, problems can often be stopped before they get out of hand.

However, the decentralized nature of monitoring in Canada, where regulations vary by province and territory, makes it difficult to ensure compliance. Ekati is one of the most closely monitored mines in Canada. Many other lower-profile mines see much less supervision and what does occur is often carried out by mining companies themselves.

Regulations are nothing without enforcement. “Recently, we discovered that Capstone Mining was told by Yukon Government Client Services & Inspections that they were allowed to contravene their water license,” says Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society. She doesn’t think that any environmental damage occurred, but still has worries. “The fact that our regulators can’t be depended upon to ensure that mining does not cause impacts to our water is a really big concern.”

Hart observes that in Nunavut, while the land claims agreement specifies a regional monitoring program, instead there is what he calls a “hodge-podge of project-specific monitoring that goes on based on company needs as opposed to broader, territory-wide needs.” He adds that the same could be said largely for other regions of the north. Hart believes that if a regional baseline monitoring organization were instituted, that would actually provide a “huge advantage” to companies, which otherwise have to start from scratch each time when considering cumulative impacts and regional issues.

While weak enforcement is a harder problem to tackle than the lack of monitoring, even when violations are discovered, the fines are often not very high. In 2008, 4.5 million litres of processed kimberlite overflowed a containment wall at Etaki, flooding the nearby tundra and frozen Fay Lake. CBC News reported that BHP Billiton might have to pay “hefty fines of up to $100,000”—pennies compared to the company’s profits. While processed kimberlite is not as toxic as some other potential hazards, it can still cause damage by burying fish eggs and changing sedimentation patterns. It was also found to possibly be poisonous to water fleas, an important thread in the intricate Arctic food web.

The dangers

Mine drainage

A bigger hazard to aquatic ecosystems is acid mine drainage, which occurs when water comes into contact with sulphide-bearing rocks or tailings. The resulting sulfuric acid oxidizes metals like copper and zinc, rendering the water metal-bearing and acidic. Acid mine drainage is especially a problem in underground mines. These are often located below the water table, so water has to be continually pumped out. Once a mine is abandoned, pumping often ceases and allows leachwater to flow out.

Pollution of groundwater sources is risky in places like Yukon, where aquifers underlay two-thirds of the territory. Whereas pollution of surface water can sometimes be contained, contaminated groundwater can spread extensively. Fortunately, in many northern underground mines such as Nunavut’s closed Polaris Zinc Mine, permafrost prevents acid mine drainage, as all the surrounding water is frozen in the rocks and soil. But as temperatures climb, intrusion of water into underground mines with sulfuric rocks could become more problematic.

The role of climate change

Alongside permafrost, other features of the frozen aquatic ecosystem facilitate mining. Companies use ice roads to transport materials to and from their mines, while frozen rocks and soil increase the stability of underground mine roofs. Yet climate change is upending these benefits. A forecast increase in precipitation, for instance, may render the size of existing tailings ponds inadequate, increasing the risk of overflow. Canada’s Mine Environment Neutral Drainage Program found that “anticipatory adaptation” should be implemented to take long-term climate change models into account.

Larry Connell, corporate director of sustainable development, explains that when Agnico-Eagle was carrying out environmental assessment work on Meadowbank in 2007 and 2008 for the Nunavut Impact Review Board, it considered a future with climate change. “We used the IPCC’s ‘worst-case scenario’ model, which indicated we should be looking at an average temperature rise of five degrees,” says Connell. Agnico-Eagle is consequently spending $48 million to construct an extra-thick cover to seal the tailings pond and ensure that waste remains frozen and contained.

Threats to oceans

At the same time as melting permafrost is hindering mining on land, melting sea ice is creating new opportunities—and risks—at sea. On Baffin Island, Nunavut, the planned Mary River Iron Ore Mine would use nine icebreaking freighters year-round to transport iron ore through the Northwest Passage, potentially disturbing the shore, icepack, and marine mammals.
Hart asserts, “It’s the most significant marine transportation project that’s ever been proposed for the Canadian Arctic, massively increasing shipping traffic. Along with shipping comes chronic low-level pollution from small oil spills and bilge water. We often focus on massive spills and shipwrecks, but from my understanding, a significant amount of oil and contaminants is released into the marine environment on an ongoing basis outside of major catastrophes.”

Makivik Corporation, which promotes the preservation of Inuit culture, requested a separate review of the mining plans for Nunavut’s maritime region, but the federal government denied it. As mining projects increase in scope, additional reviews focusing specifically on maintenance of water quality should not be overlooked.

One area currently under review is the Peel Watershed, whose six tributaries drain some 14 per cent of the Yukon out towards the Beaufort Sea. During the Klondike Gold Rush, gold miners used the Peel River to travel into the Yukon. Now, companies might soon be extracting minerals from one of the 8,400 claims that have been staked in what has been described as one of North America’s last untouched wildernesses, where extensive wetlands provide habitat to caribou, bears, and migratory birds. Many of the tributaries in the watershed are shallow, so mining, which requires a large amount of water, may ultimately not be feasible. But many of the deposits in the Peel Watershed are of uranium, so mere exploration poses a risk of contamination. “In the Peel watershed, the snowmelt in the springtime is massive,” says Baltgailis. “There are sheets of water that come down the mountains, scour the landscape, and flow into the rivers. Anything that happens to the surface of the land ultimately flows into the water.”

After the gold rush

Like the gold rush a century ago, the current boom will end one day, too, and proper decomissioning plans need to be prepared. There are 10,000 abandoned mines across all of Canada in various states of disrepair. The grandiose names of contaminated sites in the north represent ghostly boom towns of decades past: Discovery Mine, Giant Mine, Port Radium Mine. At various sites, mining has left behind a wasteland of radioactive tailings, cyanide-laced water, and sediment plumes.

In 2002, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) estimated that the maintenance and proper closure of the abandoned mines in northern Canada will cost $555 million.

The Canadian Arctic is so sparsely populated and so far from most people’s minds that the adage, “out of sight, out of mind,” too often rings true, especially once a mine is closed. If an operator declares bankruptcy, however, the costs of decommissioning can be passed on to the taxpayers, hitting closer to home.

Agnico-Eagle is already planning for the closure of Meadowbank, scheduled for 2017. The company will have to fill in three open pits and recreate numerous lakes, a process that the company believes will take at least ten years. The habitat also must be replaced at a 2:1 ratio in case the recovery takes longer than anticipated.

“No matter what man recreates, we don’t do it as fast or as successfully as nature does, so this is a 100 per cent safety factor,” says Connell.

But the health of an ecosystem is not measured by just acreage, nor by the number of fish. There can never be “100 per cent safety” after mining has taken place. The landscape may look similar aesthetically, but truly restored, healthy waters will take much longer than a decade to return.

The mining industry has demonstrated a more progressive approach to water management than in the early twentieth century. This is in part thanks to the involvement of indigenous peoples and stronger government regulations. For all its faults, Agnico-Eagle serves as an example of one company that has put forth some efforts to reduce its impact on the environment. Connell notes that all of its operations now require water management strategies.

At Meadowbank, the company also funds the Kivalliq Inuit Association to conduct periodic spot checks. Connell explains, “They will, on a random basis, come out to the mine site to do sampling and verify that we are giving them accurate information, and they bill us for the cost.”

Have the Inuit have been satisfied with the mine’s operations? “We’ve had our ups and downs,” says Connell, “but I think both parties are happy with the performance at Meadowbank.”

Harmonizing economy, environment, and technology

Given the region’s low population base and lack of alternative industries like agriculture or manufacturing, mining plays an important role in northern economic development. Profits and water quality, however, do not need to be a zero-sum game. Technology now exists to make operations safer for the environment.

Moreover, in the territories, development has generally proceeded hastily without an eye towards long-term sustainability. It’s easily forgotten that mining is temporary, while both humans and nature will rely on surrounding waters indefinitely. One day, the temperature could rise high enough that even precautions like Meadowbank’s “worst-case scenario” tailings cover are inadequate. But in the near future, if the right balance is struck between conservation and development, we can avoid a legacy of overflowing tailings ponds and acidic rivers and instead enable clean, productive northern waters and fisheries. The consequences of not doing so will far outlast any profits.  WC

Mia Bennett is currently pursuing a masters of philosophy in polar studies at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar.


  1. Hi,

    Great article!
    Just FYI it’s Ramsey Hart, not Randy.
    Also I’m not sure about the comments re. underground mines being more problematic for AMD. Underground mines that go into mountains and are not fully flooded at closure are big problems but underground mines that flood may not have that much long-term AMD as being submerged means there is little O2 that can oxydize the sulphur and generate the AMD. Open pit mines with their huge volumes of waste are a big problem too and maybe more so than underground mines.




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