Cultural geography students create concept models for Giant Mine markers

“Project Dystopia,” “The Information Tomb” and the “Giant Facility for Environmental Hazards” were among the conceptual models developed for markers and warning systems at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine by a class of cultural geography students at Memorial University. The abandoned Giant Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories is the location of 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide buried in underground chambers, which the federal government has proposed to control by freezing in place for at least 100 years. Memorial University’s Toxic Legacies project is exploring community concerns around this remediation plan, including the question of how to communicate this hazard to future generations.

Students in Arn Keeling’s third-year Cultural Landscapes class grappled with this problem by creating scale models for their design concepts of commemoration and warning systems. During a class workshop, they used everyday objects like blocks, figurines, cardboard and carpet swatches to imagine how to mold the landscape above Giant Mine to both warn future generations of the hazards underground and to inform them about how to care for the site. They drew on the Memorial research team’s report on Communicating with Future Generations, landscape theory, and other sources to think about the role of landscape markers in a “multi-level” messaging system to warn the future about toxic contaminants at the mine.

The very creative results ranged from minimal markings above ground (so as to avoid attracting the curious), to complex and fanciful symbolic systems intended to deter humans from entering and disturbing the underground arsenic chambers. Many conceptual designs addressed the thorny question of language change by using symbols, monuments, and even colour to communicate danger. Others created mathematical or cartographic symbols to indicate the hazards at the site, or instructions on how to ensure the continued freezing of the underground chambers. Education was a feature of several projects, for groups who advocated the importance of teaching the future about the problems at the mine. Check out some images of the results below.

All the project teams suggested that memorial and commemorative landscapes do have an important role in communicating hazards to future generations. However, as one group noted, “it is important to re-evaluate memorialized hazards to determine the most effective methods of literal and figurative communication as possible. Through this constant innovation and collaboration, society today will hopefully be able to warn people about the hazards that we discover, and those that we create.” Certainly, the models created by the students provide considerable food for thought on the many challenges of how to commemorate the toxic legacy of Giant Mine while warning the future of its dangers.

Thanks to John Sandlos of the Toxic Legacies project, and to Max Liboiron for her advice and her magic box of building stuff.

History of Giant Mine for EA

The Abandoned Mines team leads, John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, recently prepared a historical summary of the arsenic problem at Giant Mine for submission to the Mackenzie Valley Review Board. The board is conducting an environmental assessment of remediation alternatives for the 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide stored underground, a byproduct of 50 years of mining at the site. This toxic material poses a major threat to the Yellowknife area environment and public health, as well as the challenge of managing this toxic site in perpetuity (and issue we wrote about earlier in the summer).

The environmental assessment public registry is accessible to the general public. You can find our report here.

How long is forever?

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.

Giant Mine: A Fieldwork Reflection (by John Sandlos)

As historians, we put a lot of stock in intensive archival research and sometimes oral history interviews. Since 2007 I have been part of a research team trying to understand the environmental and social impacts of mining in northern Canada, pouring through thousands of documents and conducting dozens of interviews with residents of the region. But often the essence of what you are trying to understand about the past jumps out at you in the moment and place where you are standing.

Giant Mine Headframe and Processing Facililties (J. Sandlos)

In May 2010 I was perched on the shoreline of Great Slave Lake in Dettah (a small Yellowknives Dene community across the bay from the city of Yellowknife) with Arn Keeling, staring at the former Con Mine’s huge Robertson Shaft headframe (the dominant feature of the skyline) and the facilities further up the bay at the abandoned Giant Mine. “You know,” Arn said to me, “these people really were living in the shadow of the gold mines.” It was only when I stood in that place that I could imagine what it must have been like for the Yellowknives to suddenly hear blasting along the opposite shore, and eventually to watch the big mine developments and the City of Yellowknife take form. As so many of our interviewees told us, nobody consulted the Yellowknives; the mines and the city just grew up as if from nowhere and spread their long shadow over nearby native communities.

Of course, the Giant Mine and the older Con and Negus mines brought changes to the region, many of them dire for the Yellowknives. The mines and the city were located in an area that the Yellowknives regarded as their “bank,” a rich hunting, fishing, and berrying area that was critical for local food production. Not only did the mines occupy this former space but toxic emissions made it dangerous to eat berries or use local water supplies. First Con Mine in the 1930s and then Giant Mine beginning in 1948 began to spew toxic arsenic trioxide dust into the local atmosphere from their roaster stacks. At Giant, the emissions went untreated until 1951, a raw source of pollution that had severe health impacts on humans and animals in the regions. One small child died of arsenic poisoning. An area that had once been a source of subsistence for the Dene had now become a threat; their local landscape and sensory environment (even the smell of the air) were subject to sudden and sometimes catastrophic change due to the introduction of mining to the region.


Abandoned Mines Project on Google Maps

Abandoned Mines Project Map
The Abandoned Mines Project is studying the history of five abandoned mine sites: Keno Hills Mine (YK), Giant Mine (NWT), Port Radium (NWT), Pine Point (NWT), and Schefferville (Quebec). In some cases, nearby communities that were affected by the mine area also marked on the map.

View Abandoned Mines Project Map in a larger map