Giant Mine to cost billions to cleanup and look after for thousands of years

Giant Mine, Northwest Territories

 The news wires are alive with reports of a billion dollar estimate for remediating the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Here is an extract from one report:

Documents obtained by northern environmentalists show the government expects the cost of cleaning up the Giant Mine just outside Yellowknife to be nearly a billion dollars – perhaps the largest single environmental cleanup in Canada and paid for entirely by taxpayers. Initial estimates for safely dealing with the huge site, which includes a toxic smorgasbord of buildings, tailings ponds and a quarter-million tonnes of arsenic stored underground, were about $488 million. A federal progress report on the project says costs have increased as more has become known about the scale of the problem.

“The increase in estimated costs occurred as a result of the normal progression through the preliminary phases of the remediation project (… increased site information and detail obtained over time),” the report says. Rising labour and equipment costs are also part of the problem. So is the current state of the mine, which is so bad that emergency measures need to be taken this summer before large amounts of arsenic start escaping from collapsing buildings. The official price tag of $903 million could get higher yet.

The 2010 764-page Giant Mine Remediation Project Developer’s Assessment Report is available at this link if you want all the details and the history of the seemingly never-ending study of the site.

Can’t say they have not documented conditions and options. Although there are few options that are truly viable.

I have visited the site and met some of the folk involved in trying to move the project ahead. I attest they are professional and committed to action.

Yet there are so many interested parties, stakeholders, and study groups the process seems to be stuck in study not action.

The official site for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada tells of some of this multi-party study:

  • The project team received an information request from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board as it reviews the material presented during the public hearings in September 2012.
  • We have applied to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water for a water licence before starting the urgent work required on the roaster complex and sections of the underground. Interested parties had until February 15th to submit their comments on the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board’s draft licence.
  • The Giant Mine Remediation Project Team gave a presentation to the new City of Yellowknife councillors on February 4. The Team discussed the project, the freezing of the arsenic trioxide and some important work coming up this summer. Councillors wanted to know more about water quality in Yellowknife Bay, future land use and city permits that will be required for the work.
  • On February 6 and 7, members of the Project Team met with the Environmental Management System Working Group, which is made up of representatives from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Alternatives North, the City and the North Slave Métis Association. This working group was established to provide a forum to present and discuss information on the overall environmental management system for the site and to gather input on remediation objectives, activities, closure criteria and proposed monitoring.
  • On February 6, 2013, the project team met with a number of stakeholders as part of the Giant Mine Community Alliance group. This group was created to provide an avenue for community representatives to give feedback and recommendations about the project.
  • On February 12, the project team met with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation chiefs. This was an opportunity to discuss redefining the important role of the Giant Mine Advisory Committee. This committee, to be made up of YKDFN representatives, would provide the project team with continued advice and input on the remediation plan.

With all those meetings, opinions, requests for information to be met, and of course opposing opinions as to what should be done, it is amazing any real-time cleanup gets done.

I recognize this is not a trivial site. I recognize that cleanup will take a very long time. I recognize that there are many very interested parties, all of differing opinions as to what should be done. This is Canada after all and we must study these things deliberately and seek consensus before acting. Although I doubt consensus is possible. Even I find myself thinking different ways of cleanup from the official ways.

The fact is that we as a society are going to have to accept that there are some sites so contaminated that they will never be fully and effectively cleaned up. Think of Hanford, Washington and all its radioactive waste. It will never be cleaned to the point that unlimited public access is possible. Similarly Giant Mine. We have to recognize that Hanford and the Giant Mine are, in effect, sacrifice zones: places so contaminated by past stupidity and haste, that society must now view the areas as a sacrifice made for paste profit, or in the case of Hanford, national survival.

Of course we must pull down decrepit buildings; that is easy to do and should have been done a long time ago. Of course we must seek to intercept water that could contaminate public water bodies; that is difficult but essential. And we should keep thinking about ways to deal with the arsenic trioxide and radioactive sludges. Maybe some genius will think up the best solution some day hence. But for now, in my opinion, all we can do is commit to perpetual care and maintenance.

Freezing the zone where there is arsenic trioxide dust is not a bad idea. Keeps things in place at least. It has never been done before, and will need perpetual oversight. There will be the freezing priesthood more than 2,000 years from now, still chanting over the freezing equipment.

Of course if you think $1 billion is high, get used to an ever increasing cost. My bet is 10 billion before a hereditary freezing priesthood is genetically endowed. There is no end now or ever in sight for the costs of looking after the Giant Mine. Current hand wringing over one billion is but a storm in a teacup by comparison with the distress in years, decades, and centuries to come as the cost go on and on and on, and up and up and up.

For more from Jack Caldwell, see his blog, I Think Mining

Image: Marke Clinger from Capitola, USA, via Wikimedia Commons