Kevin O’Reilly

Danger! Danger!

How will people 300 years from now understand the hazards of Giant Mine’s toxic legacy – enough underground arsenic trioxide dust to fill the Bellanca Building and potentially contaminate the entire watershed

Many people in the Yellowknife area are aware of the arsenic stored underground at Giant Mine and the cleanup activities going on at the site. But once the buildings are demolished, the surface is cleaned up, and the bulldozers and dump trucks leave – then what? The fact is, Yellowknifers (and anyone around Great Slave Lake, really) will be living with an arsenic contaminated site for decades, possibly centuries. How can we ensure that our children and (great? great?) grandchildren remain aware of the site and keep the arsenic safely contained? How do we communicate this hazard to an unknown future?


If all goes according to plan, the 237,000 tons of arsenic stored underground at Giant Mine, enough to fill Yellowknife’s 11-storey Bellanca building, will be frozen in place. Water will be pumped continuously from the mine to prevent flooding around the frozen blocks, and treated for arsenic contamination. The thermosyphons – the circles of thin white pillars that will mark each frozen chamber above ground – will be replaced every four to five decades so they continue to pump cold air down into the frozen toxic chambers beneath. In the best case scenario, the frozen block containment method will be a temporary measure; the recent environmental assessment of the project mandated the federal government to fund research on a permanent solution that might remove the arsenic within 100 years.


What does a worst case scenario look like? Imagine Yellowknife 300 years from now. Will the federal government still be maintaining the site, or will the responsibility lie with the territorial government? That is, if there is a Canada – perhaps the government of a new nation state will be in charge, or maybe, as responsibility shifts from one government to another, the site will be abandoned and forgotten. The thermosyphons will still dot the landscape (unless vandals have destroyed them), marking the danger beneath, but what if local people do not understand what they are for, or the perils they identify?


The thermosyphons may operate on their own for a while, but eventually they will break down, along with the water pumping and treatment system. If they do, in about 20 years the frozen chambers will be well on their way to melting. The water table will rise toward the arsenic, and perhaps also leak in from above. Silently, and without warning, arsenic will seep into the local watershed and local people may drink heavily contaminated water. Perhaps a catastrophic event, like the fracturing of a chamber and flooding from a surface river, will mobilize arsenic very quickly, dramatically increasing the risks to any humans or wildlife who drink from polluted water sources. No alarms will sound and no cleanup effort will occur, because people have forgotten the danger at Giant Mine.


All of this may sound preposterous. Who, after all, could forget about a site so dramatically polluted as Giant Mine? Nevertheless, there are many examples of governments and local communities forgetting about toxic sites. Most notoriously, at Love Canal, New York, waste buried in the 1940s was only rediscovered by residents of new housing developed in the 1970s when their children began getting cancer. Similarly, at Carson City, California, housing was built on a site contaminated by oil dumping, and in Spring Valley (near Washington, D.C.) a chemical weapons dump from the First World War was only rediscovered in 1993 when a residential neighbourhood was built. There are thousands of toxic waste sites just like Giant Mine (dumps, abandoned mines, derelict storage facilities) spread throughout the globe; yet very little discussion or research has taken place on how to communicate the hazards and care requirements of these sites to future generations, who will inherit the pollution – and the risk?


People dealing with nuclear waste – radioactive material that will be hazardous for 10,000 years or more – have thought a bit about this problem. At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, several expert panels and reports from the 1980s and 1990s highlighted some of the key problems communicating with future generations over very long periods of time. The first challenge, they suggested, is imagining the future. Our society assumes social and technological progress is the norm, but a longer view suggests that societies come and go (some slowly, some quickly), and technologies and cultures change. We can’t guarantee that our descendants will know, understand, or even remember who “we” are. Does anybody really know why Stonehenge was erected?


Reports from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant considered how to send a message to this unknown future “us.” Over thousands of years, languages may change dramatically, signs will degrade, and monuments may turn to dust. Information left on paper may crumble, and electronic media (microfilm, video, computers) may also deteriorate over time or be unsuited for the technology of the future. To hedge against the failure of any one communication strategy, the pilot plant teams proposed different types of messages at the site. To get around the language issue, for example, they would use images, symbols, and large-scale monuments (scary-looking spikes, berms, or what they termed “menacing earthworks”). To prevent deterioration of textual messages, they would engrave simple warnings and more complex descriptions of danger on durable granite, while also preserving full technical records of the site on the highest quality archival paper in a buried vault (today highly portable and secure archival quality PDF-A files may be more suitable, provided there is a computer to view them on). If one or more levels of messaging – the monuments, the simple text, the more complex material, or the archives – were to fail, then the expert panels hoped that other levels would convey at least some warning to future generations.


As university researchers, we have been working with government and community groups in Yellowknife to ask how the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant studies (and other examples) might apply to the arsenic issue. We formed an ad hoc Communicating with Future Generations Committee, with representatives from Alternatives North, the NWT Mining Heritage Society, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the North Slave Métis Alliance, and federal and territorial governments. The CFG Committee is not a decision-making body, but a more open-ended discussion forum that hopes to generate ideas on how to address this very complex problem. To that end, we also held workshops last summer for the public and in local schools where participants built models of monuments and warnings that might be effective at the Giant Mine site.


One theme that has come through loud and clear from our discussions is that the long term communication issues at Giant are very different than those at a nuclear waste repository. At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, nuclear waste will be stored underground and sealed off, ideally forever with no ongoing care requirements. The WIPP teams imagined a communication system where the main purpose is to warn and even frighten people away from intruding and accidentally releasing radiation. At Giant Mine, we might imagine something different: a communication system that actually engages people continually with the site so that vital water treatment and maintenance tasks are not forgotten. This could take the form of an annual gathering at the site, frequent tours, and constant communication with the local community about the mine. Ongoing research into how to safely remove the arsenic will also help keep the site alive in people’s minds.

Still, some aspects of the pilot plant’s communication system may be appropriate for Giant Mine. Monuments, symbols and signs of danger may be crucial if knowledge of the site begins to fade. Preserving full technical manuals on the site and in archives may also be significant so that people can at least have a chance to maintain key water treatment and containment systems where the arsenic lies. We have also discussed at length how the Yellowknives Dene First Nation passes knowledge from generation to generation using the oral tradition, perhaps developing new stories (or harnessing the power of older stories) warning of the underground danger at Giant Mine.


To bring public attention to these issues, we have also provided funding to local filmmaker France Benoit (working with Kelly Saxberg of Shebafilms) to create a documentary about the history of Giant Mine and the issue of communicating the arsenic hazard to future generations. Titled Guardians of Eternity, the film will premier in Yellowknife November 7th at Northern United Place.

We have a moral obligation to warn future generations of the toxic hazards our society has left behind – but it’s not a simple challenge. Developing a strategy to communicate with future generations takes us into the realm of science fiction, imagining what future societies might look like: their technology, their values, and their cultures. It presents the difficult, though we hope not impossible, task of sending messages to an audience that we do not really know. Despite the challenges, it is a vital task if we are to contain the danger from the arsenic at Giant Mine.