How long is forever?

March 1, 2012

What does “perpetual care” of a contaminated mine site mean in practical terms? Alternatives North, an ENGO based in Yellowknife, tackles this question head on in a fascinating report recently filed with the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board for its consideration of the Giant Mine cleanup. You remember Giant Mine: where over a half-century of gold mining left 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide buried in underground chambers, not to mention widespread surface disturbance, contamination, waste rock and tailings piles, etc., all within 6 km of Yellowknife. The MVEIRB is reviewing the proposed federal cleanup and stabilization plan, which has generated considerable controversy in the community.

The federal government is proposing to use a system of thermosyphons like these at Giant Mine to freeze and thereby stabilize underground chambers filled with toxic arsenic trioxide. Photo by Arn Keeling

The Alternatives North report, available on the MVEIRB public registry, asks the critically important question: what are the key principles of “perpetual care” that must guide the remediation? This question is crucial because the federal cleanup plan calls for the in situ stabilization of the arsenic underground… forever. Based on a study commissioned by Alternatives North called The Theory and Practice of Perpetual Care of Contaminated Sites (by MiningWatch’s Joan Kuyek), the current report identifies five key principles for guiding decision-making at Giant:

  • Responsibility to future generations
  • Protection of the “commons”
  • The “precautionary principle”
  • Free, prior and informed participation and consent
  • Nature as a guide.

The report and these recommendations gives those of us thinking about mining, history and justice a lot to consider. How, by remembering, can we ensure such problems never happen again (which the report points out is job one)? Can historical research contribute to identifying how such a disaster happened and who is responsible for it (in moral, and perhaps even legal terms)? And how can our understanding of history and communication across time (and space) help ensure future generations understand the nature of the hazards at Giant?

Some scholars have considered this latter problem at other sites, such as long-term radioactive waste storage facilities. Concordia communications professor Peter van Wyck’s studies of nuclear waste and uranium mining, for instance, highlight important justice and communications theory insights into confronting the historical, contemporary, and future hazards associated with uranium production and other nuclear activities, including at the abandoned Port Radium mine site. Similarly, environmental sociologist Valerie Kuletz explores the “tainted desert” around the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, where uranium mining, nuclear testing and finally nuclear waste disposal have created a “sacrificial landscape.” She examines the attempts by artists, anthropologists and others to create a symbolism for the proposed canceled nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain that will somehow communicate to future generations, unimaginably different from our own, that this site is toxic to life.

The Alternatives North report raises important issues for the environmental review of the Giant Mine remediation project. It’s doubtful that these questions were actively considered in the highly technical solutions proposed by the federal government. While some of the principles or their specific application to the Giant case may be debated—particularly the idea that “nature” can somehow “guide” technological decision-making—these are critical considerations for addressing the historical legacies of this, one of Canada’s most notorious abandoned mines.