Perhaps the greatest environmental concern of the Aboriginal people is the health of the caribou population. These majestic animals roam in great herds across more than 350,000 sq km of the Northwest and Nunavut Territories which includes the area surrounding both the Ekati and the Diavik Canadian diamond mines. The population of the Bathurst herd of caribou has been decreasing by an average of 5% annually since 1986. This decrease is within the limits of the herd's historical variation, but to ensure that the operation of the mines does not accelerate the decline of this population, operators of both the Ekati and Diavik Canadian diamond mines participate in monitoring and reporting on the health of the herd. Caribou always have the right of way on mine property as well as the temporary ice road that during the winter months connects the mines to Yellowknife. Current population studies indicate that the herd prefers to avoid the area of the mines. The area avoided represents only a small fraction of the herd's range, but this data warrants continued research to determine what factors might be causing this change in behavior. In addition to caribou, the mine operators, in conjunction with the environmental advisory organizations, monitor the local populations of wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, peregrine falcons and a wide range of other animals.
Another environmental concern is the water quality of the surrounding lakes. Both the Ekati and Diavik Canadian diamond mines sit on the shores of the Lac de Gras, a shallow lake that supports several species of fish and migratory birds. Large quantities of water are used in the diamond extraction and sorting process. The Diavik mine recycles this water, and the Ekati mine uses a system of settling ponds to reduce the quantity of silt and contaminants released back in to the surrounding lake. Unlike many other mining operations, diamond mining does not use any toxic chemicals to leach the valuable minerals from the base rock. However, small amounts of heavy metals that are found naturally in the base rock are released during the extraction process. The water quality of the Lac de Gras and the surrounding lakes is measured several times a year, as is the health of several "canary" species that live in and around the lake. Both mines conform to the ISO 14001:2004 standard for environmental management systems.
Due to historical activities, Aboriginal tribes are also very concerned about what will happen to the land when the mines reach the end of their yield. A gold boom in the 1930's brought much wealth to Yellowknife, but once the gold ore had been extracted, the mining companies dissolved their local interests, walked away with most of the profit, and left the Aboriginal people a legacy of heavy arsenic contamination. The Canadian government and the local tribes have taken specific, direct steps to avoid a similar catastrophe when the diamond boom ends. A CAD $180 million bond ensures that even if the mine operator goes bankrupt, sufficient funds will be available to remediate the site. Currently both mines are engaging in the practice of progressive remediation to return much of the site to a long term, environmentally sustainable state. On-going studies and discussions with the local tribes help to ensure that the closure and remediation of the mines will have as minimal environmental impact as possible.
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