COMPANY SUSPECTED OF 'CUTTING CORNERS' DURING DECOMMISSIONING OF CLUFF LAKE URANIUM MINE, SK
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By Gillian Ward
As Orano Canada prepares to release responsibility for the decommissioned Cluff Lake Uranium Mine and Mill site back to the Province of Saskatchewan, a formal request has been made of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to approve a refund of $6 million from Environmental Protection fund back to Orano. The request is based on a new estimate of the future reclamation and monitoring cost for Cluff Lake site. At least three former company employees insist the long-term environmental security of the site is uncertain at best, and that the area needs more work. Water Today waded in to find out more.
Rodney Gardiner is a seventh generation Metis resident in the Ile a la Crosse area, and retired General Foreman of the Cluff Lake Mine with thirty-three years service at the site. He describes himself as a company man, accepting personal responsibility for all that transpired right along with the company. "Me and AREVA" (Now Orano canada), he says, "we did that." Having gratitude for the life he was able to provide his family by working at the mine, but with regrets, Gardiner told Water Today, "we took shortcuts everywhere" during decommissioning.
Gardiner has been writing letters to his former employer and the nuclear industry regulator, the CNSC, as well as making public statements through social media about his concerns about the long-term environmental security of the site, including suspected seepage of radioactive materials and possible release of radioactive gases from what he says is insufficient covering layer of till over materials that he believes should not have been disposed of in the unlined tailings pond. Gardiner says concrete vaults intended to contain the most highly radioactive wastes from Phase I mining had tipped over and cracked, leaking their yellow-grey contents. Gardiner claims the damaged vaults and their contents were dumped off into the tailings pit and pushed in with heavy equipment.
Kelly Daigneault echoes Gardiner's concerns. As the last Mill Operator at Cluff Lake, Daigneault claims he was ordered to dispose of "around 30 drums of yellowcake" into the tailings pond in around March of 2003. He says he questioned the order at the time, asking his supervisors, "should we be doing this?" The drums of yellowcake left over in the mill had not made the grade for the refinery, but Daigneault's training as Lead Hand responsible for crew safety led him to understand the material was too dangerous to leave in the tailings area. He says he suggested moving the drums to MacLean Lake mine for further processing, but the disposal order was repeated, and so Daigneault says he dumped the drums.
Daigneault has not been back to Cluff Lake since the decommissioning, but his conscience drove him to make a formal report to CNSC through the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment in April 2018. He circled the location on a site photograph where he claims the yellowcake was dropped. Daigneault says CNSC staff from Ottawa followed up with a phone call, reassuring him not to worry about the drums of yellowcake, saying it should be okay.
Water Today spoke with Tim Moulding, Manager for Uranium and Northern Operations with the Environmental Protection Branch, Saskatchewan. Mr. Moulding explained that he had at one time been an employee of AREVA working at the mine with an office down the hall from Rod Gardiner. Mr. Moulding later took a position with government, learning the regulatory side of the mining coin. He assured us that the Cluff Lake Tailings Management Area (TMA) was designed by professional engineers, with oversight by their professional association and its code of conduct. He says the TMA was planned to be able to safely contain any of the materials from the mine site that may need to be disposed of. He added that CNSC experts agree, having approved the decommissioning license, plans and technical work packages for Cluff Lake all along the way.
Gardiner, Flett and Daigneault are not convinced that one metre of unpacked cover is sufficient to protect the environment that is their back yard, that is their water supply, understanding that the radioactive materials will be breaking down for a very long time, even tens of thousands of years.
"What if there are people living out there in a hundred years and they start digging around?" Daigneault queries. He concludes , "You know, I just didn't like the way they shut that down. They were cutting corners is how I feel."
Water Today made official request for the trail of documents that followed after the Cluff Lake Inquiry Final Report, which was referenced in the original mine permit issued to AMOK in September 1978, as the standard for environmental considerations, including decommissioning.
What we found, is a new industry of great global interest, significance and consequence, fueled by the urgency of finding a source of clean power. The uranium industry development was encouraged by academia, embraced by government, which took a 20% ownership position in the operations, and a regulator that issued a mine permit without an abandonment and decommissioning plan.
Mr. Moulding told Water Today that although decommissioning plans were not included with the original mining application, the permit was issued on the basis that the decommissioning plan would come later. As time went on and more experience was gained in the uranium mining industry, the Ministry of Environment compiled many reports and plans from over the years to produce a Comprehensive Study Document for Cluff Lake Decommissioning in around 2000 or 2001. As of the time of publication, the Comprehensive Decommissioning Plan had not been provided to confirm or deny the claims and concerns of the former employees.
Water Today started from the beginning of the thread, studying the Cluff Lake Inquiry Final Report, and Cluff Lake Phase II Environmental Assessment to find out what the Saskatchewan public, and especially the residents of the northwest closest to the proposed mine site, understood to be the terms for approval of the Cluff Lake Uranium Mine and Mill. We found the following statements indicating long term uncertainty for the environment, that may be relevant to any discussion of a refund of Environmental Protection Fund dollars to the mining company.
These statements reflect the understanding of the day, 1978 – 1982 which was admittedly lacking in uranium handling experience, and noting the need for more research, including:
- Section 5.77, p.108 of CLI Final Report, "Should the concrete structures (vaults) deteriorate, possible leaching of radioactive materials into the surrounding soil, groundwaters and possibly into the river systems would be a matter of concern. At the present time the vaults are above the existing water table, and the radioactive residues they contain will be below the frost line. As long as these conditions persist, we believe that the material is more secure in the vaults than in the original ore body…"
- Section 5.99, p. 110, CLI, on the need for continued site surveillance, "over the course of time, increased hazards could result and special action would be in order."
- Section 5.88, p.109 Ccovering the (tailings) piles with packed earth is only partially effective. One meter packed earth will decrease emissions 30%; 6m are required to reduce it 90%.
- As to the problem of transport of radionuclides leaching in ground or surface waters, more research is required.
- As per section 5.136 point 6 on p. 116 "The requirements for abandonment and reclamation are inadequate".
- Section 6.6.4, p. 103 of Cluff Lake Phase II Environmental Assessment, "the long term effectiveness of the tailings dam in retaining heavy metals and radionuclides IS NOT KNOWN.
Mr. Flett wonders about on-going monitoring, and how it is that warning signs have been removed from lakes in the immediate area of the mine and mill. The signs that used to warn "No Fishing", "No Swimming" are gone. Mr. Flett knows that people have been around as recently as fall 2018, as his cabin had been vandalised and radioactive core samples from the mine area had been dragged and dropped near the cabin. According to Flett, the mine site's access is gated, but the perimeter is not fenced, so the public can drive up to the gate and carry on with ATV's or on foot to get in.
Orano Canada (formerly AREVA) hired SNC Lavalin to assess and validate the decommissioning work in advance of the CNSC public hearing coming up in May 2019. The Orano submission to CNSC, in the Executive Summary and the SNC Lavalin report refer to a concerned northern citizen, presumed to be Gardiner. The report supports Gardiner's claims that there is of one meter of till over much of the tailings area, but Gardiner goes further to say this layer was applied over frozen tailings during the winter and was never packed.
Surface water from Cluff Lake drains to the northwest into a number of creeks, feeding a number of lakes, that join the Douglas and then Athabasca rivers, supplying drinking water to Fort Chipweyan, Alberta, before joining the Mackenzie River, and emptying into the Arctic Ocean.
Water Today will follow up as we receive more information from industry and regulators. Until then, the concerns of raised by former Cluff Lake employees and long term northern residents seem to have some validity.
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