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Back Roads Bill: On mine rehabilitation and why it matters

This week Bill takes us to a rehabilitated mine site that matters for the future

The back roads lead to many stories. This mining story has a history and a presence. There is always the lure of finding something interesting “out there” but there is also a great of spadework to make sense of it all, you will see if the dots connect.

I first visited the once-operating Renabie Gold Mine, near Missanabie, between Chapleau and Wawa in 2017 interested in seeing the first mine site to be rehabilitated. The mine has the dubious honour of being the first to close out under Ontario’s amended 1992 Mining Act which legislated the requirement for closure plans for mining operations.

Under this amendment, mining companies could no longer walk away. The ultimate objective was to return the area to as natural a setting as possible. The rehabilitation plan was accepted in August 1992.

The Crown remains responsible for rehabilitating past operations – abandoned mines. An almost insurmountable task.

Abandoned mines

Renabie is not an abandoned mine but there are more than 5,700 abandoned mine sites in Ontario that have over 17,000 mine features, known as hazards. A mine hazard is any feature of a mine, or disturbance of the ground, that has not been rehabilitated to the standards set out in the Mine Rehabilitation Code – these include unprotected and concealed shafts or pits that we should not be exploring on the back roads.

The Abandoned Mines Information System is a database containing information on known abandoned mine sites and mine hazard features located on both Crown and privately held lands within the province. The digital search and mapping tools are exemplary.

From the Ministry of Mines Media Desk (James Tinajero) they provided the following. “The Abandoned Mines Rehabilitation Program (AMRP) is now in its 24th year and continues to this day working on high-risk priority abandoned mines with an annual allocation of $5 Million throughout the province.

“Through the AMRP, Ontario has supported rehabilitation efforts at more than 120 of the highest priority abandoned mine sites in the province of which 38 sites have been fully rehabilitated since the program’s inception in 1999. In 2023-24, the ministry is undertaking 41 rehabilitation projects at 21 sites."

I wanted to see what transpired at the Renabie site. Upon arrival, my first impressions were that one would never know there was a mine (no evidence of headframe and buildings) there. The long-term testing hole for the shaft was located where the former number two headframe was capped with cement. Then you must take the back roads and poke around, you discover challenges as documented below as nature takes over.

Historical dots

“The Renabie mine site operated intermittently for approximately 50 years until 1991. After operations ceased, the site was dismantled, salvageable equipment and supplies were removed, and tailings areas and plant site footprint were re-vegetated. Surface openings such as shafts and vent raises were also capped, while open pits were allowed to flood," says the Ministry of Mines Media Desk.

“Rehabilitation efforts at Renabie were undertaken by Homestake Canada Inc., which has since become a subsidiary of Barrick Gold Inc.

“The Ministry of Mines (MINES) continues to work with Barrick Gold and monitor efforts to ensure the company adequately addresses potential safety concerns at the site. Barrick Gold conducted a three-year water quality monitoring program that was completed in fall 2017 but has continued a monitoring program at a reduced number of locations."

Last week, we learned about watershed boundaries when there were no indigenous or environmental consultations. The mine is astride the divide between the Superior watershed and the Arctic watershed. Generally, the west area of the site drains to Stover Creek and to Stover Lake towards Lake Superior. The east area of the mine site which contains the tailings disposal system, drains into Renabie Lake and to Missanabie Lake via Renabie Creek and into the Arctic watershed.

Dot visits

Then on a second visit in November of 2020, I visited Renabie again while also completing the nearby John Sanders story.

During this time Barrick continues to try to get the provincial government to assume responsibility for the mine following the closure and has applied for an exit ticket in return for a fee of $102,290. (The system of exit tickets allows companies to walk away from future liability after paying a fee, which was created in Ontario after extensive lobbying by the mining industry in the mid-1990s.)

Environmental dots

The May 2007 Corpwatch Report, Barrick’s Dirty Secrets Renabie is one of the highlighted case studies (page 16, section V) entitled ‘Making a Mess - Leaving the Bill. It cites the surface water flowing from the property contains elevated levels of zinc, cobalt, iron and copper.

“But in 1998 sink holes began to appear on the site, and in 1999 part of the underground mine collapsed, creating a gaping hole through to the underground workings.”

The report starts out by saying: “This report, a profile of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company, is an illustration of what is wrong with the gold industry today.”

Repeated contact was made with Barrick but there was no response. This is the company’s sustainability tab.

Case Studies and Decision-Making Process for the Relinquishment of Closed Mine Sites, prepared for the National Orphaned/Abandoned Mines Initiative, (July 2013) concludes: “The Renabie Mine site provides a good example of an attempt to return an active historic mining property to the regulatory authorities. While the major risk areas have been identified and initially accepted by the regulatory authority, there remain concerns with the local First Nations community. This case demonstrates the need for long-term monitoring and maintenance and a sound policy/regulatory regime for funding these activities without which the process founders. It also demonstrates the need for a coordinated approach and the importance of community involvement in the closure and post-closure process to foster clarity and understanding.”

Jamie Kneen is the National Program Co-Lead for MiningWatch Canada.

“I have to say I know Renabie only by reputation. The legacy of mining is a big preoccupation for us, just like it’s a big preoccupation for the industry - except that they are preoccupied with avoiding liability, and we are preoccupied with making them responsible for it. But a lot of our work is at the systemic level, trying to get the province to make past operators pay for cleanup and maintenance (and maybe to stop approving new mines that will require perpetual care). I know Missanabie Cree are working on an assessment of the cumulative effects of mining in their territory, but it’ll likely be a while before that is complete, and I don’t know what they will want to do with it when it’s done (i.e. public vs. behind-the-scenes pressure for cleanup and improved monitoring). Acid rock drainage is called ‘the perpetual pollution machine’ with good reason.”

First Nation

The Renabie Mine sits on the traditional territory of Missanabie Cree First Nation (MCFN). Many community members once worked at the mine. Here is a compelling family story told by former Chief Glenn Nolan (2001-2010) when the mine was operating.

Nolan has been a member of the National Orphaned/Abandoned Mines, President of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada and a member of the Aboriginal Affairs committee, which promotes greater involvement and inclusion in the mining industry for First Nation communities. He is now Vice-President of Indigenous enterprise – Ring of Fire Metals, the biggest player in the Ring of Fire camp. Nolan helped the community in its negotiations with the federal government to be officially recognized as a First Nation.

Mining is of interest to MCFN. They hosted a community awareness session Mining on Traditional Territory Update Q&A Session on April 14, 2022.

At the same time, mining on Indigenous lands is front and centre with First Nations, especially amidst the recent changes to Bill 71- ‘The Building More Mines Act.’ Changes to the act remove the position of Director of Mine Rehabilitation and to give the powers and duties of the Director of Mine Rehabilitation to the Minister (currently George Pirie-with an extensive mining background). Most of the remaining amendments in the Bill are made to or are in relation to Part VII of the Act (Rehabilitation of Mining Lands).

MCFN was contacted for comment. MCFN Lands and Resources Department responded by saying that “MCFN has a working relationship with Barrick to monitor the tailings ponds and water quality. We have no further comment at this time.”

I again visited Renabie in 2021 when finishing the nearby Dalton story.

Legal dots

Because of advances in modern mining, many companies are revisiting waste dumps and tailings.

Another aspect of forthcoming changes is to create a pathway for the recovery of minerals or mineral-bearing substances from mine tailings and wastes, without a requirement for a closure plan.

“To obtain a permit to undertake this activity (a "recovery permit"), an applicant is required to demonstrate in its application that it will remediate the land such that the condition of the land, with respect to one or more of: (i) public health and safety or (ii) the environment, is improved following the recovery and remediation activities.” The recovery permit provisions have not yet come into force.

The Building More Mines Act, 2023 received Royal Assent on May 18, 2023 – there were eleven comments on the registry from the public, Indigenous organizations, business and industry associations, and other interested stakeholders. You can read the details of the decision here.

The Act overview says: “The improvements align with the purpose of the Mining Act which includes encouraging prospecting, registration of mining claims and exploration for the development of mineral resources, in a manner consistent with the recognition and affirmation of existing Aboriginal and treaty rights (including the duty to consult) and to minimize the impact of these activities on public health and safety and the environment.”

There is a legacy of mining in northern Ontario and mining is important. “If it is not grown its mined, if it’s not mined it is grown.” Minerals are important within our day-to-day lives.

Take the back roads to Renabie and have a look for yourself, see the map.

"Connect the dots" is a phrase used to associate one idea with another—to find a big picture within a mass of information. This story continues on the back roads there will be more dots.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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