REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is suing Ottawa over what it says is a failure to live up to a deal to split the swelling costs of cleaning up an old uranium mine.
"I just don't see how they can say, 'You're stuck with it,'" Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre said Wednesday. "I just don't think that's fair."
The dispute centres on the shuttered Gunnar mine in northern Saskatchewan. The mine was originally developed to feed nuclear programs in the United States and in other NATO allies, but hasn't operated since 1964.
Because of its ore's strategic importance, it has always been federally regulated — unique among Canadian natural resources. As well, Saskatchewan's statement of claim argues the mine would never have been developed if not for federal policies to mine and export uranium to Canada's allies.
When Gunnar closed, it left behind open-pit and underground mines, as well as a mill, other facilities and a company town that once housed up to 1,200 people. The mine produced 4.4 million tonnes of tailings and 2.7 million tonnes of waste rock, some of which have since drifted into nearby Lake Athabasca.
In 2006, Saskatchewan signed a cost-sharing deal with Ottawa promising to split the cleanup expenses evenly. The total cost at that time was estimated to be $25 million.
That cost is now thought to be about $280 million.
"I can only speculate that the scope of the project was not fully grasped," Eyre said.
The statement of claim — which has not been proven in court — says Saskatchewan has spent about $126 million on the project while Ottawa has provided about $1 million.
Talks with different federal governments have failed and the province is now forced to go to court before a legal deadline at the end of the month passes, said Eyre.
"We are confronting a statute of limitations. We feel we're left with no choice."
Eyre said Ottawa has been balking at the growing cost of the cleanup. But the remediation program was approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the industry's regulator, which has said the Gunnar program is comparable to what's been done at other sites.
It's not fair to expect Saskatchewan — and the Indigenous people who live in the area — to accept cut-rate work, said Eyre.
"All the work we've done has been OK'd by the (commission). The feds have suggested that we could have pursued lower-cost options. We completely disagree with that."
Vanessa Adams, a spokeswoman for Natural Resources Canada, said the federal government considers Saskatchewan the site's owner and responsible for its cleanup.
"Consistent with the original agreement, we are committed to providing ($13 million in) funding for the remaining two phases after Saskatchewan obtains all the necessary approvals required to proceed with remediation," she said in an email.
A provincial spokesman said Ottawa is insisting on licences for the remediation work different from those already granted by the regulator.
Eyre said the dispute over growing costs dates back to at least 2010. She said the current government continues to move slowly — a letter to federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi written over the summer didn't get a response until October.
It's at odds with the Liberal public positions on both environmental and Indigenous issues, Eyre said.
"It does strike me as ironic that in this case you have such a direct impact on First Nations communities and the environment and we're being told to pursue a cheaper option."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow @row1960 on Twitter