Innovation, Community Engagement and Education

Trusting the Land Again: Combining Western Science and Traditional Knowledge to Understand Lakes in the Area of the Former Rayrock Uranium Mine, NT

Tuesday, November 20, 2018 - 14:40 to 14:59 Theatre 3


G. Lafferty (Presenting)
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

R. Breadmore
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

A. Richardson
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

The former Rayrock Uranium Mine site is located approximately 145 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, on the western edge of the Marian River fault. The site is located within Tłı̨chǫ lands as per the Tłı̨chǫ Land Claim Agreement. During operation of the mine, 207,754 kilograms of Uranium yellowcake was produced from the mine. This produced 70,903 tonnes of un-neutralized (pH 2.5-3.0) tailings that were discharged across two areas that are now referred to as the north and south tailing piles.

Around the time of mining operations, the Tłı̨chǫ noted that materials in the tailing piles were contaminating the surrounding area. They observed how these tailings killed the trees and fish. Consequently, the Tłı̨chǫ avoided the Rayrock area, adding it to an exclusion zone that delineates areas that are not safe for harvesting. Furthermore, they believed that dead animals and plants down-stream from Rayrock were caused by the spread of the “poison” spilled into the water at Rayrock.

The tailings piles at the Rayrock Uranium Site were covered in 1996 as part of a remediation program and were then monitored for several years. Nonetheless, the Tłı̨chǫ continued to be concerned with the lakes and waterways in the area. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) subsequently commissioned assessments to address these concerns. The results determined that all but one lake on site were safe for fish.
In order to address on-going Tłı̨chǫ concerns with the site, CIRNAC organized a multiple day tour of the area. Elders and youth from Tlicho, communities were invited to stay at the site, where they observed the health of the wildlife and plants and complete a fish palatability test of fish from Sherman Lake. Characteristics considered were: physical condition, colour and appearance of organs, firmness of flesh, odours during cooking, and taste. Test results indicated no adverse effects on fish quality.

Pieces of the fish flesh were also tested using a mobile X-Ray Fluorescence tester. This showed low concentrations of metals of concern in the flesh of the fish prior to consumption. Laboratory analysis of the flesh was also performed.

In summary, community involvement was essential to begin concrete discussions on the health of the land around the former Rayrock Uranium Site. Tests conducted onsite drew on Traditional Knowledge as well as Western science. Both frameworks demonstrated that the fish sampled were not affected by former mining operations. This will go a long way to establish trust in the land and in remediation activities conducted by the Government of Canada.