From THIS Magazine, November/December 2003

Poisoned Ground

Years of turning a blind eye to a growing environmental nightmare in Canada's Arctic have left taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup. Industry and government say it can't happen again. But the signs that we've learned our lesson are anything but encouraging.

by James Hrynyshyn

THE VIEW FROM THE AIR IS BAD ENOUGH. From a window seat, on the final approach to Yellowknife's airport, it is impossible to miss Giant Mine, an industrial scar on the outskirts of the territorial capital. Craters half-filled with suspicious-looking runoff, a sprawling and even more dubious tailings pond, rusting and rotting headframes and an aging fuel-tank farm do their best to undermine the city's efforts to cast itself as an eco-tourism destination.

Making matters worse is the inconvenient fact that what remains of this major gold-mining operation, the reason most people live here in the first place, straddles the road between Yellowknife and what passes for cottage country on the taiga north of Great Slave Lake. Without the luxury of a floatplane, the only way to get to some of the best fishing and hunting in Canada is to drive through the centre of Giant Mine.

Since the mine opened in 1948, most Yellowknifers have managed to ignore the surface ugliness. It's what lies beneath that gives bureaucrats, First Nations and municipal planners cause for concern. Buried in the empty mine shafts and specially constructed vaults are 237,000 tonnes of a chemical so toxic it has been compared to nuclear waste. And the problem is, the arsenic trioxide dust is refusing to stay in the empty caverns, known as stopes. Instead it's leaking, microgram by microgram, into the groundwater, finding its way into a creek that runs through the abandoned mine and ultimately into the Great Slave Lake ecosystem. Giant Mine is a Giant Problem. And it's a problem that even the most expensive proposals — some pegged at as much as $1 billion — may never be able to clean up.

REGAN CHERNISH WAS A GEOLOGIST AT GIANT MINE in the 1990s, when it cost more to extract an ounce of gold from the mine than it would fetch on the international market. He remembers wondering what he was doing to his lungs and other internal organs each time he stepped into the "antique" elevators that took him to the depths of the mine.

"To drive by the surface it's just ugly. People don't realize what's lying just a few couple of hundred feet beneath them," he says. "It's pretty indicative of what it looks like underground," only worse. It was cold — just three or four degrees Celsius, with terrible lighting and more than the occasional sense of impending doom. "You'd get this decrepit feeling," he recalls. "You always had that black soot in your nose (from the diesel equipment), and there's a lot more groundwater than anyone thought there would be."

As a senior geologist — now a mining executive and consultant in Calgary — Chernish was often spared the anxiety of having to carry out the more fearsome assignments himself. "Workers would have to walk into the arsenic storage chambers and stopes to check on the pipes and make sure they were blowing properly into the back of the stopes and not the front end," he says. "You'd have to wear Tyvek suits and air packs. One of my engineers would have to go in there periodically ... that was one of his least favourite jobs. He would come out and shower for two hours straight."

This is because an atom of arsenic has a tendency to disrupt DNA and, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can cause cancer of the skin, lung, bladder, kidney and liver. It is a nasty toxin by any standard, though consensus on a minimum safety threshold has proven difficult to reach. In Canada, the federal government has set a drinking water guideline of 25 micrograms per litre. The U.S. and the World Health Organization prefer just 10 micrograms, but that could change at any time as industry and advocacy groups around the planet engage in a never-ending lobby with regulators.

All by itself, arsenic isn't that much of a threat. The arsenic that's been trapped for 3.5 billion years in the Canadian Shield on which Yellowknife was built is not soluble in water, which means it cannot be absorbed easily by living things. Arsenic is found all over the world, and usually turns up in combination with other elements — including gold. This explains why no one was ever too concerned about the Yellowknife regions naturally high background arsenic levels — as much as 10 times Canadian norms. That and the fact that the high arsenic readings were literally linked to the high gold readings.

To separate the arsenic from the gold, the original developers of Giant Mine decided to use a high-temperature "roasting" method. It was cheap and effective. The only problem was what was left over from the extraction: a white, odourless, tasteless powder finer than flour. And it turns out that arsenic trioxide is soluble in water, and is readily absorbed by the me­tabolism of plants, fish, birds, bears and, of course, humans.

The dangers of arsenic were known long before the first shaft was sunk at Giant. Mining executives and society as a whole, however, tended to ignore evidence that arsenic exposure produced skin lesions. The first studies at Giant, in 1949 and 1950, suggested a serious waste-disposal challenge was just around the corner. But for years the roaster at Giant was not only the most profitable choice of technology — it was the only choice.

It is not unreasonable to postulate that the owners, Falconbridge, might have gotten around to replacing the roaster with alternative technology. Yellowknife's other remaining gold mine, the Con Miramar operation, did that long ago. But in 1986, Falconbridge sold its stake in Giant to an Australian group that went bankrupt four years later. Creditors sold Giant to a junior upstart known as Royal Oak for $35.6 million. Most of that was borrowed money.

By then, the chances of closing down the roaster were practically nil. The only way Royal Oak, under the ownership of one Peggy Witte, could make a go of the mine was to slash costs. Witte's approach to running Giant Mine was so controversial that it resulted in a bitter, months-long strike that divided the city and ultimately led to the deaths of nine miners in an underground explosion set off by one of the strikers in 1992.

TO THE REST OF THE COUNTRY, GIANT MINE IS BEST KNOWN as the scene of one of the worst mining tragedies in Canadian history. That could all be about to change, though, as the country wakes up to the cost of cleaning up what Peggy Witte and her company left behind. The site is still a Workers' Compensation Board nightmare and it will be centuries before nature reclaims the wounded Canadian Shield.

When Royal Oak collapsed, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) assumed responsibility for Giant Mine, and then sold it off to a subsidiary of Miramar Mining. The company also operates the nearby Con Miramar gold mine, which is due to close this fall. Miramar plans to continue mining ore from Giant and processing it at the Con Miramar facility.

As part of its agreement with Miramar, INAC pledged to prepare and implement a long-term management plan for the arsenic trioxide dust. It's a problem the department has been working on since 1997. INAC hired international engineering firm SRK to study the technical challenges involved. Its final comprehensive report was released in December 2002. The firm offered seven options, five of which involved variations on hauling out the toxic dust and two that called for leaving the dust in the ground.

At first, the idea of leaving it in the ground was rejected by many municipal and aboriginal leaders. Darrell Beaulieu, the chief of the Dene reserve that sits across the bay from the mine, makes regular reminders in the Yellowknife media of his First Nation's refusal to accept permanent on-site storage. This past summer, he convinced the Dene National Assembly to pass a motion calling for INAC to get rid of the waste.

Closer examination of the report, however, made it clear that choosing among the options would be extremely difficult. The options involving removal included re-burying it much deeper; shipping it to a hazardous-waste disposal facility; converting it to a less dangerous form and then re-burying it on-site or storing it on the surface nearby; or encapsulating it in an inert material — such as cement, glass or bitumen — and storing it on the surface. All of these removal options pose serious health and safety challenges. Using any available technology, the consultants note, significant amounts of the dust will be lost to the environment, which could make things worse than they already are.

On the other hand, leaving the arsenic trioxide where it is depends on a lot of unknown variables. One plan is to freeze the area using thermosyphons, a tried and tested technology used around the world — including Yellowknife — to keep permafrost frozen even in the presence of heat-radiating buildings.

The idea that thermosyphons — essentially passive refrigerators — will recreate the natural permafrost leaves some a bit cold. Kevin O'Reilly, a Yellowknife city councillor, research director for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, and a regular commentator on environmental issues in the North, points out that the dust was pumped down into the mine in the first place because it was assumed that the permafrost of the region would be impervious to groundwater seepage. The only problem was, all that mining activity generated enough heat to melt the permafrost, which remains thawed to this day. And of course, as the technical consultants point out, the mine and the network of thermosyphons will have to be monitored "in perpetuity."

And that's the crux of the objection. "For me the most important thing in evaluating any of the alternatives that people come up with is to minimize the perpetual care requirements," says O'Reilly. "What's really meant by that is that my great­grandchildren, if they have to live in Yellowknife — I want to make sure they don't have to replace thermosyphons, to monitor and treat water being pumped from the mine. I'd like to have some assurance that we won't pawn this problem off on future generations."

Then there are the huge price tags. The SRK report concluded that the best options were either leaving the dust where it is and artificially freezing the ground ($90-$120 million) or encapsulating and storing it on the surface ($230-$280 million). An independent review released earlier this year reached the same conclusions. So far, the Giant Mine Remediation Project seems to be favouring the cheapest option. The SRK report makes it clear that leaving it in the ground not only presents the most eco­omical plan, but of all the options studied, it poses the lowest environmental risk. It seems likely that SRK would have made only a single recommendation if it weren't for its conclusion that "segments of the local community have variously expressed reservations" over both leaving the dust in place and moving it to the surface.

O'Reilly says the emerging community "consensus" from the government's consultants and project leaders is really nothing of the sort. "People want something that's safe and permanent. I guess the bottom line in terms of the work that's been done is that that option is not completely safe and not terribly permanent," he says, pointing out that the favoured option also happens to be the cheapest. "I don't think that's necessarily a coincidence," he adds.

O'Reilly remains concerned about a number of questions left dangling by the independent review of the SRK report. Although largely supportive of the original study, the review panel warned of several shortcomings. Among the most ominous is the suggestion that SRK's "preliminary evaluation of the risks involved may be too optimistic" and that "the evaluation of worker health and safety risks as 'moderate' may be underestimating the potential dangers." The review experts also concluded that the cancer risk and contamination levels of fish needed to be better understood, warned of "uncertainty as to exactly how much of the arsenic trioxide can be extracted from within the vaults," and pointed to the need for better data on water flows, natural arsenic levels, the potential for contamination and even seismic activity.

The panel concluded, "the Giant Mine Remediation Project represents a challenge that is unprecedented both in terms of its scope and complexity." For O'Reilly, the Dene and other environmentalists in the Northwest Territories, those are frightening words. But O'Reilly says the project team has failed to consult the community with any real seriousness and dismissed attempts to suggest alternative solutions.

Bill Mitchell, manager of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, disagrees. "That's incorrect," he says. "I've been with the project for about 11 months, and since starting, we had a major public workshop back in January, where we asked for and in fact received a lot of comment" He says the protect has held many public sessions, bought a series of newspaper ads, created a display at a local mall and is continuing to meet with the Dene. "There is a lot of public support now in the community," he says. "And we have a lot of support from the legislative assembly which we did not have when this process started."

O'Reilly says he would like to see a combination of the options presented by SRK, a solution he says the Remediation Project refuses to consider seriously: First, remove the dust, chemically stabilize it, encase it in concrete or another material, and then put it back in the ground, below the groundwater level. It brings to mind the U.S. government's favoured approach to high-level nuclear waste, with the con­troversial Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada. O'Reilly's proposal would also pose economic challenges similar to the Yucca site; it could easily push the price tag into the billion-dollar range.

Bill Mitchell says SRK looked at this option in detail and determined that it was not viable, but not because of the price. He says there are worker safety considerations because of the mine's age. "Even at the best of times, people would not be allowed to go into old workings," he says. And, he says like all of the removal options, there is no guarantee that some dust would not be released.

AT THIS POINT, GIVEN CURRENT TECHNOLOGY, IT APPEARS that the Giant Mine Remediation Project has no good options. Even the most expensive proposals pose serious health and environmental risks. The more important question might be: what are INAC and other government agencies charged with protecting the North doing to ensure we won't have to face this kind of choice again? All sides agree that things are not as bad as they used to be. Peter Chapman, a Vancouver-based aquatics expert, auhor of more than 140 papers on toxicology and related subjects, and a frequent consultant to both industry and government in the Arctic, says the days when a Peggy Witte could get away with leaving a Giant regulatory headache behind are over. "I think it has progressed both ways," he says. "New mines aren't gong to open unless they've done sufficient liability assessments to ensure it's not going to cost them a fortune when they close."

Government, meanwhile, is far less likely to let owners get away with serious breaches of their obligations. "You've got too many fail-safes, this just couldn't occur," Chapman insists.

The new diamond mines springing up across the tundra, he points out, are going to enormous lengths to satisfy and even exceed environmental regulations. At the first of the diamond mines, Ekati, which is owned by mining conglomerate BHP Billiton, "the amount of effort that goes into making sure that there's not one caribou that's hit by a truck is incredible.

Critics, however, argue that INAC's record of managing environmental concerns in the Northwest Territories is less than stellar and is not showing significant signs of improvement. It turns out that developing a plan for long-term management of Giant Mine's toxic leftovers was a requirement of Royal Oak's 1998 water license. But Royal Oak never produced such a plan. Neither the Northwest Territories Water Board nor INAC made any threats to revoke the license.

Has governance really improved in the past five years? Consider the Canadian Zinc mine project at the south end of the Nahanni National Park Reserve. It is just 32 kilometres up­stream of the Nahanni River. A preliminary environmental review of the pilot project for the mine found the potential for "significant" environmental impacts. If, for example, the retaining walls of a tailings pond fail, the results could be catastrophic to the aquatic ecosystems. But the owners are already preparing for a full-scale operation.

As O'Reilly points out, it is common for environmental investigator positions at INAC to go vacant for months at a time. At the CanTung tungsten mine just north of Nahanni Park, no inspectors showed up for at least 18 months while the operators prepared to begin mining the ore. Then, in February of 2002, 23,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled into a nearby creek. That attracted INAC's attention, but getting information on such incidents isn't easy. O'Reilly says it is also standard INAC operating procedure not to release environmental reports of mining operations "where there are issues as yet unresolved."

O'Reilly also points out that it isn't useful to compare diamond and precious-metal operations either. After all, diamond mines are basically rock-crushing operations. Assuming they put the rock back in the ground after they've extracted the gems, little in the way of contaminants should remain. That isn't to say that there aren't other impacts, but precious-metal mines invariably import and leave behind reactive chemicals needed to separate their cash crop from the ore. Northern ecosystems may be feeling the pressure easing, not because government and industry are doing what they're supposed to do, but because industry is less interested in mining metals than diamonds. Several gold and base-metal mines have closed in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in the past few years; a few are on the drawing boards.

Meanwhile, the arsenic trioxide waits for a solution. Engineers at SRK estimate that none of the options, no matter how elaborate and expensive, will take care of all 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide. And if even one percent gets into the ground-water, "extensive contamination" would be unavoidable. For those who hope for a solution that does not require the stewardship of future generations, consider what Richard Wilson, a professor of physics at Harvard University, says about waste problems similar to those facing Yellowknife and INAC: "The arsenic, being carcinogenic forever, should obviously be placed in a landfill at least as secure as planned (at Yucca Mountain, for example) for long-lived nuclear waste." That kind of lifespan is measured in tens of diousands of years, which is more than enough time for unanticipated catastrophes to undermine the best-laid plans of the Giant Mine Remediation Project.

This ancient landscape may never recover from the wounds inflicted over just five decades of human activity. For the people of Yellowknife, simply agreeing to live with 237,000 tonnes of carcinogenic material is a lot to ask. The tragedy is, short­sighted governments and reckless industry have left them with little choice, and it looks as if not enough is being done to ensure that other communities and subsequent generations will be spared the same impossible decision in the future.

James Hrynyshyn is a freelance science writer. His web site is