06/20/2013 12:07 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Northern regulator raises doubts on Giant Mine cleanup plans

YELLOWKNIFE - Forever is too long to trust a government, says a northern regulatory board in its review of federal plans for a massive and poisonous mess at Yellowknife's defunct Giant Mine.

But northerners are likely to have to put their faith in a proposal to freeze 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic arsenic underground for a good long time.

Federal officials want to deal with the huge cache of underground arsenic at the former gold mine on the outskirts of Yellowknife and the shores of Great Slave Lake by freezing it in place with 65 kilometres of refrigerating pipes running through cavernous subterranean storage chambers. The giant underground popsicle would be maintained "in perpetuity," say the plans.

That's too long, said the Mackenzie Valley Impact Review Board.

"The public (does) not have any confidence the (government) can be trusted to fund and actively manage the site forever as proposed," says the board's report released Thursday.

"The public does not accept that the challenges of perpetual care have been adequately considered by the (government), and that the project as proposed meets our society's moral responsibilities to future generations."

The board did acknowledge that freezing may be the best that can be done — for now.

But it refused to accept that method as anything more than an interim measure. Its report, which now goes before the federal cabinet, recommended plans should be reviewed every 20 years to see if a better way has been found to get the poison away from the N.W.T.'s largest city and the world's 10th-biggest lake.

The board also said an independent board should manage the project rather than the government serving as both developer and overseer. As well, a comprehensive health risk assessment should be conducted on the community and the two local aboriginal bands.

"The acceptance of this project by surrounding communities depends on public confidence," it said. "The project as proposed is likely to cause widespread anxiety."

The board also points out that the cleanup will take so long that it should be funded from its own trust fund instead of relying on periodic budgetary approvals.

Kevin O'Reilly, who addressed the hearing on the government's plans for the environmental group Alternatives North, said the board had addressed almost all of the community's concerns.

"It's proof that environmental assessment can work," he said.

He was pleased to see the recommendation for ongoing research into better ways of dealing with the arsenic.

"It's exactly what we hoped for and wanted," he said.

The report is the result of consultations that began in 2008. It's an attempt to deal with what could be Canada's largest and most costly toxic cleanups.

In addition to highly soluble underground arsenic, there are 13.5 million tonnes of arsenic-contaminated tailings on the surface. The 95-hectare site contains many structures that are also contaminated with arsenic and other poisons from asbestos to dioxins.

Some of the structures are in such bad shape the government was forced to apply for emergency permits to take them down this summer before toxins were released.

The latest cost estimate for the entire project is $903 million — all of it to be borne by taxpayers.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton