Examining the history of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A partnership among researchers at Memorial University, Lakehead University, the Goyatiko Language Society (a Yellowknives Dene First Nation non-profit), and Alternatives North (a Yellowknife environmental and social justice coalition).
Examining the history of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Guardians of Eternity will be featured this week at the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS) meeting at Umeå University in Sweden. ICASS is the main gathering of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, held every three years. We presented a poster about the Toxic Legacies project at the last ICASS, held in Prince George, B.C., so showing the film feels like coming full circle! Extractive industries and Arctic communities is a major theme at this year’s conference, so we’re hoping for lots of interest in the film. If you’re in Umeå, please join us Saturday, June 10 at 5 p.m. in Aula Nordica in the Universium building on Umeå University campus.
If you have thumbed through Mining and Communities in Northern Canada, you know that the effects of mine abandonment continue to ripple through communities long after closure. This prolonged ripple effect is also true of abandoned mines’ environmental impacts, especially in northern ecosystems. My second co-authored paper about Pine Point has just been released, and its focus is the mine’s environmental legacy (read the full text online here). In this paper, Dr. Yolanda Wiersma and I investigated whether industrial resource development and abandonment have long-term effects on subarctic, boreal environments using the Pine Point mine as a case study.
The Pine Point mine, Northwest Territories, Canada (Map by Emma LeClerc)
The Pine Point mine (1964-1988) was an open pit lead-zinc mine that shut down when ore prices dropped below a profitable level. At Pine Point, the reclamation strategy involved covering the massive tailings pond with waste rock and building barricades to block access to the site. The pilot study for revegetating the tailings pond was unsuccessful, and no further attempts at revegetation were made. The Pine Point mine was thus abandoned, leaving behind a post-industrial landscape approximately 1900 square kilometers in area, comprised of 46 open pits, the 570 hectare tailings pond, piles of waste rock, and extensive networks of haul roads and cutlines. While this plan for closure and abandonment was deemed adequate by governing bodies at the time, it would be considered unsatisfactory by today’s reclamation standards. Local land users from Fort Resolution have repeatedly voiced concerns about the environmental state of the abandoned mine.
Oblique aerial photo of open pits, haul roads, and cutlines, circa 2003 (Photo courtesy of Deninu Kue First Nation)
Given the passive approach to reclamation undertaken at Pine Point and the ongoing environmental concerns, we set out to discover whether land cover at the site has changed since its closure more than two decades ago. Landscapes are dynamic; patterns are continuously being shaped and reshaped by different ecological processes, and vice versa. By analyzing changes in land cover at Pine Point through time, we hoped to evaluate the long-term effects of industrial resource development and abandonment on landscape patterns in a boreal context.
In our paper, we used four satellite images spanning the twenty years after closure to see how landscape patterns at Pine Point have changed since closure. We classified the images into six different land cover types and calculated a series of landscape metrics to quantify landscape patterns. We performed the same analysis at a nearby site in Wood Buffalo National Park, which served as an analogy for how the Pine Point landscape might have developed in the absence of industrial development. We expected the Pine Point site to become more like the Wood Buffalo National Park site over time as a result of natural revegetation.
Classifying satellite imagery into land cover, pixel by pixel
So what did we find? The landscape metrics showed that the Pine Point site remained quite different from the Wood Buffalo National Park site, even twenty years after closure. In terms of land cover composition, the site in the park is dominated by dense coniferous forest, whereas the Pine Point site is dominated to varying degrees by open coniferous forest and regenerating vegetation. While the metrics indicated that unvegetated land at the Pine Point site is becoming more fragmented – which could correspond to natural revegetation around the edges of mine features – the resolution of the satellite imagery wasn’t fine enough to draw definite conclusions. In addition, the overall amount of unvegetated land at the mine site remained pretty stable compared to the park site; this stability means the natural revegetation occurring at Pine Point is happening very slowly. The long-term monitoring of abandoned mines in northern Canada requires better access to affordable, high-resolution imagery that can capture the fine-scale land cover changes that reflect ecological processes of vegetation conversion.
Map of land cover change (1989-2009) featuring part of the Pine Point mine
Our findings have implications for how we think about mine closure and the problem of monitoring abandoned mines in general. This paper shows that the passive reclamation strategy at Pine Point has done little to effect vegetation conversion at the site. Certainly, this is not news to land users in nearby Fort Resolution, who have repeatedly attested to the environmental degradation of Pine Point. While the comparative stability of the Pine Point site in what should be a dynamic boreal environment may not be a shocking revelation, it should make us reconsider passive reclamation as a viable closure strategy in northern Canada. The abandoned mines that dot Canada’s North pose myriad challenges, ranging from legal to socioeconomic to environmental. Our paper shows that the environmental challenges are not going to fix themselves.
The Toxic Legacies project is pleased to announce that Guardians of Eternity, the documentary about the history and future of Giant Mine, is now freely available to stream online. Directed by Yellowknife filmmaker France Benoit and produced by ShebaFilms, Guardians of Eternity tells the disturbing story the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s experience of contamination and remediation of arsenic pollution at the mine. The film was a key early product of the Toxic Legacies partnership.
Released in October 2015, the film has been seen by audiences across Canada and beyond, reaching over 1100 viewers at hosted screenings. It was also featured at the Marda Loop Social Justice Film Festival and the John Wiley Lecture at the Canadian Association of Geographers’ annual conference in 2016. The film was also positively reviewed in The Otter, the online magazine of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. It was also listed as one of the 10 best documentaries of 2016 by Canadian Dimension magazine in their “Alternative Year in Review.”
Guardians of Eternity was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant, which funded the many research and outreach activities under the Toxic Legacies partnership. For us as researchers, it has been gratifying to see how film can convey the powerful and complex story of Giant Mine to diverse audiences. Hosted screenings have generated lively conversations with audiences about the long-term impacts of mineral development, industry regulation, environmental justice, and communicating with future generations. Now that it is freely and widely available, we hope the film will become part of creating a more positive future for Yellowknife and Giant Mine.
Based on archival sources and public hearing transcripts, the paper documents how Yellowknives Dene, in particular, engaged in political lobbying and what we nowadays call “citizen science” activities to challenge government and company assertions about the threats of arsenic exposure from roaster emissions at Giant. In the 1970s, a collaboration between the National Indian Brotherhood and the United Steelworkers (the Giant workers’ union at the time) mobilized knowledge around environmental pollution. They conducted their own studies when government research minimized or ignored their concerns about the health impacts of pollution, participated in public hearings, and continued to push for research into the long-term health effects even after the mine closed. The paper shows how this resistance to environmental racism is connected to other Indigenous struggles over industrial development and to issues such as land claims, sovereignty, and colonial dispossession.
Guardians of Eternity will be screened at Queen’s University in Kingston on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. The film will be co-presented by project partner Mary Rose Sundberg and researcher Arn Keeling. The follow day, they will also be presenting a public talk about the project. Here are the details:
Thursday, November 10th – 7:30 p.m. Evening Screening of the film Guardians of Eternity in Ellis Auditorium. FDASC Opening by Elder-in-Residence Mary Ann Spencer; Q&A to follow with Yellowknives Dene community member Mary Rose
Sundberg (Goyatiko Language Society, NWT) and Dr. Arn Keeling (Memorial)
Friday, November 11th – 2:30 p.m. Mac-Corry D214: “Toxic Legacies: The Slow Violence of Arsenic Contamination at Canada’s Giant Mine”
The visit is sponsored by the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s, along with the Health, Environment and Communities (HEC) Research Lab.
The work of the Toxic Legacies project was featured in a recent CBC Interactive feature on Giant Mine. The story traces the history and legacies of arsenic contamination around Yellowknife, and explores local reactions to this history. It also profiles recent scientific studies from the NWT Cumulative Effects Monitoring Program that, along with research by university-based scientists, is documenting the extensive effects of historic arsenic deposition on the local environment. The story also offers important insights into the impacts on workers at the time.
The Toxic Legacies project was profiled by Maureen Haver on the Cultures of Energy blog of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University.
“Regarding Giant Mine, the Canadian government’s plan for containment involves freezing the arsenic underground in perpetuity. Beyond the technical challenges, the question of how to communicate risk and containment to future generations by imagining a time in the distant future unlike anything we know now is no easy task,” she writes.
Our documentary, Guardians of Eternity, will screen for free in Toronto and Yellowknife next week. Here are the details.
Toronto Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies York University
Monday September 19th, 2:30 PM
History Common Room
2183 Vari Hall
Yellowknife Wednesday September 21, 7:30PM
Northern United Place
There will be live question and answer sessions in Toronto with John Sandlos, a lead investigator on the Toxic Legacies Project, and in Yellowknife France Benoit, director of the film.
About the Film
Guardians of Eternity is a full-length documentary film about the toxic legacy of the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. The Giant Mine was part of the founding infrastructure of the city of Yellowknife and can still be seen on the outskirts of town. It is located near the Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities of N’Dilo and Dettah and was built in 1949 without consent on Dene hunting and harvesting grounds. For a number of years highly toxic arsenic trioxide, a byproduct of the roasting process used to separate gold from the ore, spread widely from the roaster contaminating the land around the mine. Today, the majority of the arsenic, some 237,000 tones, is buried underground in frozen chambers. The Canadian and NWT governments are working to remediate the site and the current plan includes keeping the contaminants frozen, perhaps into eternity. The recently passed environmental assessment includes a number of measures, including an independent oversight body and a perpetual care plan, and includes the requirement that research into a more permanent solution be conducted and that the project be reviewed every 100 years. This is one of Canada’s most contaminated sites and understandable there is much public awareness and concern. Guardians of Eternity introduces the people who are most affected by this legacy of a gold rush and looks at the challenge of communicating the danger to future generations posed by the existence of a substance that will remain highly toxic forever.
I travelled to Yellowknife (with a heavy box of maps!) in May with the intention of 1) mapping the changes in traditional land use activities around Wiìliìcheh (Yellowknife Bay), and 2) understanding how mining contamination is perceived and experienced by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN).
Upon my arrival, I was immediately greeted by YKDFN’s traditional knowledge specialist, Mr. Randy Freeman and former Chief of Ndilo, Fred Sangris. Little did I know that Randy and Fred would become my ‘right hand men’ during the course of my fieldwork. From taking me out on the boat to check fish nets, and teaching me how to tell the difference between a healthy and unhealthy fish liver, to showing me traditional travel routes, my experience would have been completely different without them!
Catching, Cleaning & Cutting Fish
During my interviews, I asked land users to identify on two maps where they go hunting, fishing, collect drinking water, and gather berries and medicinal plants. Most importantly, I asked if there were any sites that they tended to avoid for certain land use activities, and if so, why? It became clear that mining contamination, along with restricted hunting zones, increasing recreationalists and municipal waste were major influences in changing traditional land use patterns. Elders explained to me that prior to mining activities, the Yellowknives Dene used to fish along the flanks of Wiìliìcheh and hunt in Wag’we (where the town of Yellowknife currently sits). Today, land users avoid this area out of fear and uncertainty of arsenic contamination. When participants were asked to indicate where they feel safe to drink water and catch fish for consumption, they drew an invisible boundary line south of Wiìliìcheh. What is interesting is that this invisible ‘safe zone’ seems to be based on the knowledge and experience of the land user (there are no public health advisories in effect). Many land users explained to me that fish caught in Wiìliìcheh had sores or deformities, and even at times tasted oily. Further, when talking about firewood in the vicinity of the Giant Mine, one participant described,
‘If you never seen a green flame before, cut some trees around Giant Mine and burn them you are gonna see green blue flames. It’s unnatural. It might be uh sulfur dioxide, it might be arsenic, it’s contamination, it’s pollution from the mines.’
‘Visiting’ the Giant Mine Site
In addition, danger signs such as ‘KEEP OUT CONTAMINATED AREA,’ ‘ASBESTOS: Cancer and Lung Disease Hazard’ and ‘KEEP OUT OPEN PIT’ now bombard and encircle the Giant Mine site. Imagine driving by this site every day knowing less than 100 years ago it was a blanket of blueberries? If there is one thing that’s for sure it’s this: that the scarred landscape around Yellowknife Bay serves as a constant reminder of past environmental injustices. From blue flames, to fish deformities, and fenced off areas, the Yellowknives Dene were forced off of their lands, and with this project I will show where exactly these changes took place.
Before leaving for fieldwork, I was advised countless times not to worry, not to stress too much, not to be afraid that I didn’t know enough or that I would make a fool of myself (which inevitably happened of course). After a few short weeks in the field, my ideas would likely change, my perspectives would be altered and a clearer storyline of information would hopefully present itself. And I suppose some of those things did happen… some of my ideas changed, my perspectives were broadened, but the story only got more and more complex with every person I met.
Giant Mine Headframe (Caitlynn Beckett)
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with people from a variety of backgrounds and fields including federal, territorial and municipal government employees, scientists and engineers, First Nations leaders, community activists, regulatory bodies and consultants. These people all had very different ideas about what remediation is, what Giant Mine should look like, and how remediation should be done. These differing opinions highlight the difficulties of such a value-laden process. While some focused on remediation as a technical process of risk management, others saw it as an opportunity to heal historical wrongs and to rebuild trust. Many people fell somewhere in between, recognizing the importance of both approaches. This lead me to question how the technical processes of remediation, and the broader processes of resource extraction, fit within contexts of colonialism and reconciliation in Northern Canada. How can the concepts of sustainable development and remediation constructively include both environmental and social issues – and can this feasibly be done in a community haunted by a colonial past and mistrust of government?
Inspecting Thermosyphons (freeze column technology) at Giant Mine (C. Beckett)
In addition to interviews, in February I had the chance to attend the Giant Mine Surface Design Workshop. Participating in this workshop helped to shape my initial research questions and I began to see remediation as a broader healing process, deeply connected to the histories of colonialism, treaties and resource extraction in the Northwest Territories. Throughout interviews, many people identified this as a major point of contention in the project. For many community members, remediation is not simply a matter of technically fixing the mine; they want to be involved in the process; they want to know how they will manage this site for generations to come; they want to heal both the land and the community. Throughout the past 15 years, and through the Environmental Assessment, I think that is has become clear to many Yellowknivers that the remediation process at Giant is more about trust and communication then it is about the actual arsenic.
I also had the opportunity to attend the first meeting for the Giant Mine Oversight Body and a meeting for the Giant Mine Advisory Committee, organized by the Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation. These meetings provided a chance to see the remediation project team in action. However, more than anything, it was all about the people I met (of course)! The people I interviewed, the people I spoke with on the streets, and the people who took us fishing, canoeing and camping helped to direct my research and to show me how it could be useful. Experiencing the culture and the nature of the Northwest Territories was an especially important part of my positive fieldwork experience. At one point, an interviewee was describing how, historically, hundreds of Dene people gathered annually at Tartan Rapids to catch and dry fish before heading further north to hunt caribou. Afterward, I reflected on the fact that I had just spent the weekend canoeing, fishing and camping at those same rapids. The connection really hit me. From both Yellowknivers and the Dene, there was an overwhelming feeling of devotion to the land, both physically and spiritually, which carried through in the Giant Mine remediation discussions. I experienced the fear of wondering what might be in the tailings dust as we drove across the mine site with the windows down and I experienced the difficulty of working through a problem with people from different cultural and language backgrounds. All of these things had felt so remote from afar.
For me, the most enlightening part of fieldwork has been the heightened amount of responsibility I now feel for my research. One goes through ethics approval applications, and it all seems easy, like an exercise in common sense. But I now feel much more committed and connected to the community of Yellowknife and the people who have worked so hard for the past 15 years to heal Giant Mine. I feel a responsibility to do the best possible job that I can, to record their story, to respect the varied perspectives and stories that were shared with me and to provide something that will be useful in the ongoing remediation process.
What will Giant Mine look like in the future? How will people know that the site is contaminated, and how to contain and maintain the arsenic hazards that exist at the site.
A dedicated group of people who live and work in and near Yellowknife have been working for over a year with researchers at Memorial University to answer just this question. Dubbed the “Communicating with Future Generations” Committee, we have talked about everything from the best methods to store records about Giant Mine to what kinds of monuments or stories might best communicate what the site contains. If you are interested in our discussions, we have produced a summary report and a brief two pager on the issue.
A lot of our thinking on this issue has been informed by the work done on communicating long term nuclear waste hazards at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. You can get more information on the designs the WIPP group imagined to warn people away from the underground nuclear repository, and also read our full report (and two page summary) on how the WIPP ideas might be applied at Giant Mine.
We also want to hear your ideas! Whether you live in Yellowknife or have something to contribute from elsewhere, you can post your ideas about communicating with the future at Giant Mine to our public Facebook page. We look forward very much to hearing your responses, and hope the online discussions will help inform a community workshop we plan to hold in Yellowknife at the end of September.
Edge YK posted this story recently about official warnings against swimming, fishing or drinking water from some local lakes, including the popular Frame Lake, around Yellowknife.
“Frame Lake, Jackfish Lake and around a dozen other small lakes near the Giant Mine bypass road are not safe for swimming, drinking or fishing due to heightened levels of arsenic, Dr. André Corriveau announced today. Frame Lake, in particular, has arsenic levels more than 10 times the limit suggested by Health Canada’s safe drinking guidelines.”
Most of the arsenic deposited in these regional water bodies originated in the early period of Giant’s operations, which began in 1948. Before 1951, no pollution control was used and arsenic smoke was sent straight up the mine’s roaster’s stack. Pollution continued, although at lower levels, through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Below is a map from the GNWT indicating levels of arsenic contamination in regional lakes.
John and Arn recently sat down with Bojan Furst, producer of the Rural Routes podcast, for a discussion of their work around abandoned mines and the challenges of remediation at Giant Mine. You can hear or download the podcast here.