While mining operations in northern Saskatchewan, that supplied the United States military with Uranium in the early days of the Cold War, ceased in the 1960s, people of this area continue to live to date with the environmental, human health and safety risks of the abandoned mines. International precedents and the history of Uranium mining in Canada make it clear that it is the federal government that must address the environmental legacy of an industry that was both promoted and regulated by the federal government during the Cold War. Yet, the federal government has abandoned its responsibility to fund decommissioning and reclaiming of these sites and wants instead the Government of Saskatchewan to assume this responsibility. Without there being any federal commitment to fund the task, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has indicated that a license will be imposed on Saskatchewan if there is no other competent authority in place to hold the license.
Negotiations on sharing the expenses associated with the rehabilitation of two major mining sites that began in 1998 were stalled in early 2000 and did not resume. The Government of Saskatchewan completed an assessment of all abandoned mines in northern Saskatchewan in 2002 without arousing serious federal re-engagement in discussions.
International precedents suggest that it is possible not only to redress various risks these sites present but also to create economic benefits for this economically depressed region populated largely by the Aboriginal peoples. In response to international precedents, the Government of Saskatchewan has developed a proposal to decommission and reclaim the abandoned sites in a cost effective and economically beneficially way to the region, and is undertaking some necessary immediate site safety work. In case the federal government, like other mature federations, agrees to discharge its financial responsibility in this case, the Saskatchewan government’s role would be that of the regulator of the proposed decommissioning and reclamation project, including the long-term monitoring of the sites, and training for jobs on the project.
The Uranium industry of the Cold War era was not merely regulated, but was actively promoted by the Government of Canada to achieve its foreign and defense policy ends. The federal government’s continued refusal to accept the financial responsibility for its forty-year old legacy of environmental, human health and safety risks is not only irresponsible but also out of step with Canada’s international record on human and environmental health and safety issues. It is high time for the Government of Canada to take environmental risks in northern Saskatchewan as seriously as it does elsewhere in the world.
Ian Peach and Don Hovdebo