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Sudbury Mining Solutions

Sustainable Development

Former uranium mine becomes nature sanctuary

A unique three-way partnership in Elliot Lake has been honoured with the 2010 Tom Peters Memorial Mine Reclamation Award for its co-ordinated mine reclamation efforts in the former uranium mining town, 120 kilometres west of Sudbury.

Tom Peters was a founding member of the Canadian Land Reclamation Association, which was established in 1975. He was a well-respected environmental leader and valuable contributor to the City of Greater Sudbury’s regreening project.

The Canadian Land Reclamation Association, in partnership with the Ontario Mining Association, presented the third annual award at its Reclamation Symposium in Elliot Lake on June 22.

The recipients were Debbie Berthelot, reclamation manager, Rio Algom Limited, Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton and Marg Reckahn, president of the Penokean Hills Field Naturalists. The award recognized their efforts in the reclamation of the Milliken tailings management area, now known as the Sheriff Creek Sanctuary.

Located two kilometres northeast of the city, the Milliken mine and mill operated from 1958 to 1964. During this period, an estimated 76,500 tonnes of tailings were released to Sheriff Creek in an area later rehabilitated to form the Milliken tailings management area (TMA).

The sanctuary itself is 30 hectares, 17 of which were tailings remediated in the late 1970s with vegetated and water covers.

Three feet of sandy gravel fill was placed over a portion of the tailings and formed into ball fields that are no longer in use. The flooded tailings formed a wetland.

In 1996, the Penokean Hills Field Naturalists entered into a stewardship agreement with Rio Algom.

“I’m sure there are not too many places where a mining company and a conservationist group would get together as partners,” said Reckahn, “but it happened here.”

Reckahn attributes the collaboration to Erwin Meisner, one of the original founders of the volunteer naturalist group, established in 1995.

“It took a little convincing and a lot of negotiations,” she said, but the three representatives formed a unique partnership.

“We’re responsible for the site,” said Rio Algom’s Berthelot. “Any of the planning, engineering, permitting, implementation, operation and maintenance of the tailings facility is solely Rio Algom’s responsibility. We entered into the partnership and the role of the Penokeans is to provide the support to make it not only a tailings management facility, but also a recreational resource for the community.”

Meisner’s vision helped evolve the Sheriff Creek Sanctuary into five distinct bird habitats, and three colour-coded trail systems that meander several kilometres throughout the site with causeway bridges and lookout blinds.

“It’s a wonderful area, because you can get into the back part of the sanctuary and think you are out in the middle of the wilderness,” Reckahn said. It is used throughout the four seasons, attractive to resident birders, botanists and visitors taking a stroll through the woods.

The city, described as a silent yet important partner, provided staff time and funds from a grant to hire labourers to install a new 50-foot steel bridge and boardwalk, part of the Red Trail system in the wildlife sanctuary.


“We all worked together quite well and installed a long and winding boardwalk over a sensitive and wet area that was causing environmental damage from all the hiking use in the sanctuary,” said Daniel Gagnon, interim chief administrative officer, City of Elliot Lake.

In 1997, an engineered structure, or berm, was constructed, which now forms the causeway. It ensures the wetland area stays flooded.

Water covers were chosen for the majority of the tailings sites in Elliot Lake. Berthelot said the bigger concern is controlling the acidity and the secondary issue is the control of the radium. In the case of the Milliken TMA, about one-third was covered in water. The construction of the berm helped decrease the volume of tailings interacting with oxygen by creating a water barrier between the tailings and the air. Consequently, it has reduced the zone of interaction, resulting in lower acidity, radium and iron levels.

Berthelot said the water quality in that area is similar to that found in Northern Ontario swamps, which generally have a depressed pH level of between 5 and 6 and a higher iron concentration. However, since the tailings were flooded, the water quality has improved and is safe for waterfowl habitation with radium levels 10 times below the provincial water quality objectives.

“The partnerships make this project unique,” Berthelot said, adding that the award provided a great opportunity to recognize a volunteer group. “The Penokeans have been really great in the habitat enhancement projects and they do a fair amount of public outreach.”

As well, the city plows the parking lot in the winter and has provided alternate snowmobile and ATV routes outside of the sanctuary.

“The community as a whole has benefited from their work, and they deserve to be recognized for that.”


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