Workers at an underground test freeze, in 2012. All photos via Kevin O'Reilly.
The Northern Canadian territories often get written off by all of us as a frigid tundra of nothingness. But it’s probably about time we start paying attention to the situation up there. Yellowknife is currently sitting on 237,000 tons of arsenic—enough to kill the entire human population of our planet a few times over.
The majority of this highly water-soluble carcinogen is sitting in specially designed underground chambers below an old and depleted gold mine called Giant Mine, on the outskirts of the city. The arsenic is a by-product of mining operations that started in the late 1940s, shortly after the discovery of gold in the north. Mining continued until 2004 when the company handed the depleted mine back to the federal government along with loads of arsenic trioxide dust as a nice “fuck-you-very-much.”
For years the local mine's arsenic production (averaging 22,000 pounds a day) was left unregulated until 1951, when a child from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation died of poisoning from eating snow in the area. It became apparent that the government needed to do something about it. But instead of shutting down operations, they thought the best course of action was to collect the massive amounts of poisonous dust in chambers underground, presumably hoping that the arsenic trioxide fairy would eventually come and take all of it away. They handed the child’s family $750 and decided to wait it out.
However, with a crumbling infrastructure and increasing concern about leakage into the local water supply, the time has come to do something about it. Now that it is 2014 and the Canadian government is older and wiser, they have finally come up with what a reasonable solution to our minor poison problem: They are going to freeze the 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide underground—for all of eternity.
“How can we ever ensure that human systems are going to continue to keep something that requires rather sophisticated engineering and monitoring to function forever, that’s just crazy,” argues Kevin O’Reilly, an activist with Northern Alternatives. “We can’t even remember how the pyramids were built 5,000 years ago. How can we know that 5,000 years from now, if there are even people on this planet, that they are going to know what to do to keep this stuff frozen? That’s just irresponsible.”
The government had originally hoped that permafrost would creep its way back into the area and freeze the arsenic naturally, despite warnings from engineers that came as early as the 1950s that this would not be the case. After a decade of fruitless waiting the government’s plan to achieve this “frozen block” solution is to mimic the way an ice rink is kept frozen. That is: by continuously pumping coolant into the ground, the arsenic should theoretically stay frozen.
The freezing as of now is expected to cost at least $1 billion initially, and then an additional $2 million every subsequent year.
An aerial view of the mines.
“My own thoughts are that we probably should bring the stuff up above ground and process it into a less toxic form of arsenic and put it at the bottom of the mine,” says Kevin. But this solution is seen as too costly to implement.
The government’s remediation plan of icing out the arsenic was initially met with uniform opposition from every group involved with Giant Mine. The Mackenzie Valley Review Board, an independent tribunal which aims to give the surrounding aboriginal peoples a greater say in the management of the area, proposed an environmental assessment, which will hopefully be approved by the minister in Ottawa any day now. The assessment lays out numerous amendments that include “forever” being reduced to only 100 years, as well as putting funding towards research that would seek to find a more attainable solution for the mine.
“The project went from having uniform opposition from every group involved to having support from many groups after environmental assessment,” says Alan Ehrlich, a member of the Mackenzie Valley Review Board.
The City of Yellowknife, as well as the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, unanimously passed a motion to accept the Review Board’s proposed amendments, as they would bring the people a slightly more hopeful future for their area. This is especially important when you put into context how much Giant Mine has affected the Dene people’s lands, upon which the mine is located.
The carelessness with which the mine was operated in the first few years of production has had profound repercussions on the Dene people. With no pollution control, everything inside the mine was going up the stack. Even towards the end of the mine’s life in 2004, there was still around 60 pounds of arsenic being diffused into the air every day. The end result was complete contamination of the Dene’s land.
“They have often talked about their land being destroyed,” says Kevin. “They used to go into the Baker Creek area as it was well known for fishing and berries. It’s really hard to find any blueberries around Yellowknife anymore. They’ve been scorched off the surface of the earth by the sulphur dioxide emissions from the mine.”
“They used to harvest throughout the area where the mine was,” Alan continues. “It was also on routes for hunting caribou as well, and now it has become one of the most contaminated sites in Canada.”
It's no surprise that they would be concerned about how the proposed cleanup will affect them further. Numerous contaminated buildings will have to be exhumed and destroyed in an attempt to decontaminate the area. Soil will have to be removed, which has the potential to create toxic dust. The Dene people have raised concerns of how this will affect them physically and culturally, as many of their key cultural practices are closely tied to the land.
“One thing that I think is outstanding is the need for a public apology and compensation to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation for what was done to them and their land,” says Kevin. “There needs to be some acknowledgement that something bad happened and that [the government] will do their best to make sure that it never happens again.”
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