News
Mark Rendell

City Briefs: Stanton Work Camp Decided, and the Great YK Water Debate Kicks Off

As one major discussion is resolved, another huge civic question heats up: where will we get our water from?

After a false start, a lot of confusion and some dire predictions, a temporary work camp for Stanton Hospital construction workers will be built within city limits.

On Monday night, City Council voted unanimously to begin rezoning the area behind the Field House to allow for a work camp. The hospital builders Bird/Clark Stanton Joint Venture, still need to move through the development permit process for the 150-person work camp, but with council now on-side, it should be a relatively trouble-free process from here on in.

The decision was a reversal of council’s previous vote in late May to nix a 150 to 250 person work camp in the undeveloped lot beside the North Slave Correctional Centre. In the face of considerable pushback from residents living in the newly developed Hall Crescent neighbourhood, a number of councillors said the plan didn’t offer enough to Yellowknife businesses and was contrary to smart growth principles. This point was articulated most forcefully at the May meeting by Coun. Adrian Bell: “In many ways Yellowknife has been subject to boom-and-bust cycles and we lament this fact… We’re now a capital city, we’ve got a full-time slate of industries and we aim to diversify and be a more stable economy… I’d be afraid if we go down this road with this developer, I think work camps would be a very popular option for any future development.”

It appears (non)buyer’s regret developed in the weeks that followed the surprising four-three vote to halt the plan at first reading — and when Det’on Cho Corporation, the business arm of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, eagerly stepped up to offer a site along the Dettah Road, killing a work camp in city limits looked like a major missed opportunity.

Luckily for the City, the economic case for Clark and Bird to build the camp in town trumped what could have been a justifiable decision to walk away from council’s snub, and last week they came back to council with three new site options for a smaller 150 person camp.

“The options in town are better,” explained Dave Brothers, Clark’s vice president of northern operations. “We both live here, we’re both taxpayers, so if we’re in town it’s better for the community. Plus, our pricing for the camp, which is turnkey, is based on the facility being close to town, so you know, the water, the sewer pump-out, power, all of those things, so for us the option in Yellowknife would be better.”

The maximum number of people living in the new camp will be 150, though that number could be as low as 120, according to Brothers. The camp will last for two years, and construction will likely begin in late summer, once the development permits have been approved. According to Brothers’ pitch last week, there could be significant opportunities for locals in operating the camp, with an expected 80 percent of camp support staff being hired in Yellowknife.

After the heated debate, the ultimate result should be better for Yellowknife than what was first on offer: having the work camp closer to downtown and the commercial strip on Old Airport Road will be good for local business; the Fieldhouse and Multiplex should get more users; and after the two-year construction is finished, the City will be left with a developed lot that could be used as overflow parking or as an overnight site for camper vans and trailers.

Water debate: bay or river

People attending Monday’s Municipal Services Committee meeting got a sneak peek at what’s likely to be the defining debate of this council: whether to replace the expensive water intake pipes running out to the Yellowknife River, or risk drawing water from Yellowknife Bay, downstream from arsenic-rich Giant Mine.

“I hate to use the example of Flint, Michigan, but I‘m sure when the council members there decided to change the site of where the water was coming in, they never imagined they were going to be poisoning their citizens later — it was a cost savings.”

Both sides of the argument were on display: first Chris Greencorn, the City’s director of Public Works and Engineering, gave a presentation claiming the risks of drawing water from the bay were relatively small, followed by a passionate rebuke from former Dene National Chief, George Erasmus.

“I honestly don’t think there is anything more important than putting that pipe back in place. Anything else is really reckless,” said Erasmus. “I hate to use the example of Flint, Michigan, but I‘m sure when the council members there decided to change the site of where the water was coming in, they never imagined they were going to be poisoning their citizens later — it was a cost savings.”

Technically, Greencorn’s position was neither for nor against taking water from the bay — the sole recommendation from administration was to hire someone next year to bring together the published water and sediment testing data and then make a recommendation to council in 2018. But his underlying message was that drawing water from the bay is not a major concern.

Water tests, conducted over the last ten years, have consistently shown arsenic levels in Yellowknife Bay water to be considerably below the 10 Parts Per Billion (ppb) allowed by federal drinking water standards. And a 2011 report by engineering firm Aecom recommended that water be drawn from the bay.

“They recommended using Yellowknife Bay as a raw water source,” said Greencorn. “But in saying that, they also recommended arsenic treatment be installed at the water treatment plant to take into account variations in concentration naturally that exist in Yellowknife Bay due to poor water pressure…  or if there was an event from Giant Mine.”

The arsenic treatment technology would cost around $5 million to install in the City’s new water treatment plant. That’s compared to the $20 million it would cost to replace the eight km submarine pipe running to the Yellowknife River.

Greencorn, citing the Aecom report, acknowledged there were natural fluctuations in arsenic levels in Yellowknife Bay due to sediment being stirred up by low water pressure and wind, and that there was the possibility that the Giant Mine tailing ponds could be breached, dumping arsenic-infused water into Yellowknife Bay. However, even if that did happen — and Aecom “concluded that the tailings ponds failure is a low probability scenario” — the natural dilution rates in the bay plus arsenic filters at the treatment plant could handle the spike in arsenic levels, said Greencorn.  

This argument didn’t hold much water with Erasmus: “I’m 67 going on 68, I’ve seen the tailings spill a number of times… We don’t want to plan for worst-case scenarios. We have a situation right now where don’t have to worry about it. You do not want to put in a system that has to be there forever; the arsenic is not going to go anywhere.”

The debate will likely be aired next during the fall’s budget deliberations, when council will have to decide whether to follow the recommendations from administration and hire a researcher to collect data on the issue or to start saving for the pipe replacement in 2020.