Mapping the Giant Mine controversy

March 20, 2014

Following the previous post derived from my MOOC musings, I put abandoned mines back to work for the next course module, which asked us to tentatively “map” a controversy. The key questions to be addressed are:

  • What is the controversy about ?
  • Who are the actors of the controversy ?
  • How are actors connected ?
  • Where does controversy take place ?
  • When does the controversy develop ?

Using Giant Mine as a “controversy,” here’s what I came up with:

This controversy is one drawn from my research and is, at first blush, a typically “local” controversy over an environmental issue with a techno-scientific dimension (discussed in my post on techno-scientific objects). The controversy is about the Giant Mine Remediation Project, a plan to clean up an abandoned mine near the community of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The main challenge and controversy is how to deal with 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust buried in the former mine.

To start with the last question first, the controversy developed in the mid-2000s over plans by the Canadian government (through its Aboriginal and Northern Affairs department, AANDC) to freeze the material underground using thermosyphons. Initially, the government resisted a full public environmental assessment of the project, but public outcry led to a referral to the Northwest Territories regulator, the Mackenzie Valley Review Board, for review in 2012. In the Environmental Assessment process and in the media, various actors and interests mobilized to contest selection of this technoscientific solution (derided by critics as “freeze it and forget it”) and the governance processes surround the project. These actors included AANDC, territorial government regulators, the indigenous people of the area (Yellowknives Dene First Nation), the City government, an environmental NGO (Alteratives North) and others.

Arguably, lively non-human actors are critical parts of this debate–arsenic, of course, frozen underground but posing a persistent health and environmental threat, as well as the groundwater threatening to mobilize it into the environment and the shifting permafrost regime of this northern environment (which the thermosyphons are, in a sense, meant to restore to freeze the arsenic in place).

Because this is a “local” controversy (albeit one with arguably far-reaching implications), it’s not a controversy especially suited to the kinds of quantitative analytic tools so interestingly introduced in this module. Rather, it is ideal for an ethnographic and historical approach to ‘following the controversy’ although of course local and national media have played roles in shaping public debate at crucial junctures.

I’ve created a concept map using IMHC Concept Map tools to illustrate some of the links between these various actors, as well as indicating some of the key issues at stake for the intervenors. What this shows (somewhat messily!) is that there are a number of cross-cutting links amongst the players, due to regulatory responsibilities, activities, and even just the sorts of mundane connections one expects to see in a small social setting. Thus, there are “sides” in the debate, but they do not necessarily harden into intractable positions, even though there are significant divisions on key issues.

Giant - who is involved in the Giant controversy

I’m left to reflect on ‘where’ (in the sense discussed in this module) this controversy takes place. Clearly there are sub-controversies to be mapped, beyond the question of the suitability of the freezing plan and technology, some of which I’ve noted here: the questions of project costs (spiralling quickly); the demands for independent oversight (since AANDC is both the project proponent and regulator); and the question of the perpetual care of this toxic site (arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic forever). Macro controversies associated with this issue include:

  • the issue of environmental justice for indigenous people, who associate the mine with dispossession and the poisoning of their traditional territory;
  • the issue of citizen involvement and empowerment in environmental assessment
  • the issue of mine closure and remediation practices and regulation, and the relative responsibilities of government and industry for these problems;
  • and regulatory processes, seen as a key failing of the remediation proposal process.

In any case, because of these various issues, what appears at first to be a minor “local” controversy has a considerable technical, political and ethical “hinterland” that makes it a very rich controversy to follow, indeed.