Opinion
Kevin O’Reilly
Mark Rendell

Living With Arsenic

A new study finding contamination in lakes near Yellowknife may not be all that surprising. But it should prompt a public conversation about what living next to Giant Mine really means

How should a community live with, and alongside, an environmental disaster that has no endpoint, no possibility of resolution? This was the melancholy question at the heart of France Benoit’s Giant Mine documentary Guardians of Eternity, released last fall. Do we remediate the mine as best we can and let Yellowknife creep over top of it? Do we erect signs and leave an industrial wasteland to mark the dangers below? Do we create oral legends to be passed down from one generation to the next?

These are profound questions which do not invite easy answers, not least because there is no temporal horizon to the problem, as the film’s title suggests. Yet the importance of asking these questions was, once again, brought into sharp relief last week with the release of a study from the University of Ottawa showing that levels of arsenic in a number of lakes around Yellowknife is far higher than the recommended drinking limit, up 13 times the limit in some cases.

In many senses, the scope of the issue is so immense it’s easier for most of us to forget about it and simply get along with our daily lives. But as these studies increasingly suggest, the legacy of Giant goes well beyond the site being remediated. 

The study got national headlines, though this information is not entirely new. But it expands on and confirms findings from other studies, such as one recently released by the GNWT, showing contamination from the mine goes well beyond the mine site itself and the bodies of water fed by streams running through the site. Forty-five percent of the 98 lakes tested within 30 kms of the old Giant Mine roaster during the GNWT study – the most comprehensive to date – had arsenic levels that exceeded the federal drinking water standard. Although contamination levels vary considerably depending on the lake’s size, proximity to the mine and whether it is in the path of the prevailing southeasterly winds. The lakes most affected seem to be the relatively small ones northwest of the mine, and none of the lakes examined in the Ottawa study have cabins on them, according to lead author Adam Houben.  

But now the question: what should we do with this information? It shouldn’t be a cause for panic. As the territory’s chief public health officer Andre Corriveau told the CBC, “people shouldn't worry, unless they're eating contaminated mud or have been drinking contaminated water daily for years.” Yet it’s hard to ignore the mounting data that shows just how significant and widespread the fallout from Giant Mine is beyond the mine site itself.

Within the next few years, we’ll hopefully get a better picture of Giant Mine’s effect on human health. Earlier this month Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada issued an request for proposal for a “comprehensive detailed quantitative human health risk assessment” related to the Giant Mine Remediation project to be conducted in 2016 and 2017. According to the RFP, the study is expected to look at a broad range of impacts, both current and potential, of contaminants on Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah. This will require an “assessment of exposures to appropriate human receptors due to current levels of contamination at the Giant Mine Site as well as in surrounding communities/areas, waters, sediment, and flora and fauna used as food that have been impacted (contaminated) by historic emissions from mining operations over the life of the mine.”

This won’t be the first study to examine the impact of Giant Mine on human health and the surrounding ecosystem, but it looks to be the most comprehensive. Whether or not these results will be significant enough to change health, education and land policy, or make us reconsider Corriveau’s assessment of health risks, remains to be seen. But now, with the data mounting and more on its way, is the time for a public conversation along the lines suggested by Benoit’s documentary.

How are we educating students about the issues surrounding Giant Mine? In a town where new people are constantly arriving, is there need for more public outreach to educate newcomers? How should the lakes with higher levels of arsenic be marked?

In many senses, the scope of the issue is so immense it’s easier for most of us to forget about it and simply get along with our daily lives. But as these studies increasingly suggest, the legacy of Giant goes well beyond the site being remediated. And as Benoit’s documentary makes clear, we’re stuck with the problem for a very long time indeed, and need, as a community, to start thinking more about how to live in relation to Giant’s toxic legacy.