Say Goodbye to the Robertson Headframe

Concept art for an ambitious plan to turn the headframe into a greenhouse | Illustration courtesy Dave Stone

On EDGE | Opinion

Yellowknife has a new day to add to its heritage celebrations next year, but what to call it — Robertson Day, perhaps, or Shaft Day — and when to mark it — the date the structure’s death warrant was issued, or the date of actual execution — will be debated as noisily as the fate of the territory’s tallest building has been.

All that is certain at this point is that the Robertson Headframe will come down, likely sometime this year. City Council last night ended almost a decade of argument and anguish, voting to suspend talks with the territorial government over taking ownership of the iconic structure.

That clears the way for Newmont Mining Corp. to issue a call for tenders to demolish the 76-meter landmark, and for the NWT Mining Heritage Society to order the bronze plaque that society president Walt Humphries has vowed will commemorate the mayor and council that failed to preserve the headframe.

Humphries could even make good on his threat to challenge Mark Heyck for the mayor’s office, but the debate over this relic of Yellowknife’s golden age has just lost its power to overshadow more immediate civic issues.

The million-dollar landmark question promised to divide the electorate between preservationists and those who think the most fitting reminder of Yellowknife’s founding industry is the 237,000 ton ‘arsenicle’ buried beneath Giant Mine – a memento that promises to keep on giving for generations to come.

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Many will argue that city council and administration did too little, too late to save the Robertson, and that its belated effort to take control of the headframe lacked conviction. Indeed, the $900,000 estimate for repairs/maintenance ($435K) and remediation ($500K) has always had the feel of a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Concentric Associates, the North’s go-to engineering consultants, came up with the price tag after a two-day visit to the Con Mine site, and added what Chris Greencorn, the City’s public works director, termed a “first glance” assessment of remediation costs.

Concentric found evidence of PCBs, lead, mercury and maybe even a bit of asbestos, so the cost of preparing the Robertson for public access could have ended up being much higher than that $500,000 guestimate. Given their experience with unexpected costs encountered in preserving the Wildcat Café, city administrators were understandably cautious.

The Van Tighem option – our previous mayor’s suggestion that we weld the doors of the headframe shut and maintain it as nothing more than a beacon to boaters and aviators – might have looked attractive to preservationists. Compared to unknown remediation costs, the price looked right: $435,000. But even that solace was not available, according to the City’s legal advisors.

The headframe’s fate has been up in the air for a decade, but just last year, someone asked for the first time if the City could actually, legally, take ownership of it and whatever costs might come with that. The answer from the GNWT was a blunt ‘no’.

Was there a way around that impasse? Could the territorial government have granted a one-time exemption to its legislation, or taken the Robertson from Newmont Mining and flipped it to a third party? Councillor Adrian Bell is doubtful.

“Can we lobby the GNWT to amend whichever act is causing the problem? Sure. But can you really see the GNWT empowering cities, towns and villages to take risks on sketchy properties? And asking them to just ignore their own legislation in this one instance is not an option,” Bell wrote in an email to before last night’s council meeting.

“The GNWT likely has the ability to indemnify Newmont. A private entity has already offered to do the due diligence on the site (Cloudworks),” Bell wrote.

But he doubts that Yellowknife MLAs would be able to persuade the legislature “to spend money on environmental assessments for an asset that is of no interest to anyone but Yellowknifers.”

“So maybe Cloudworks quantifies the risk and then, presuming the cost of cleanup is reasonable, the GNWT takes it over and turns it over to the City. Longshot, but it’s the only scenario I can think of that has even a remote chance of success.”

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