Canada's most contaminated site, the Yellowknife Giant Mine, has reached a
milestone in its $1 billion taxpayer-funded remedial plan. The dangerous and badly
contaminated roaster building, which created hundreds of thousands
of tonnes of highly poisonous arsenic trioxide, (enough to kill every human
in the world) has finally been demolished.
Between 1948 and 2004, the Giant Mine was a major economic
driver for Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. When
the mine closed, bankrupt, after bitter battles with its union and
an explosion, it left behind an environmental catastrophe,
including 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide in underground
chambers. The original concept (approved by mining regulators) had
been that permafrost would naturally keep the poisonous dust
frozen. It didn't happen. Why? The heat of the mine operations
themselves; infiltrating water; huge open pits that (with
regulators' permission) were dug nearby; and climate
On August 14, 2014, after a very difficult and contentious
environmental assessment, the federal government approved a
controversial remedial plan to (hopefully) contain the arsenic
trioxide in place for (at least) a hundred years. The decision of
the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development
(AANDC), on behalf of the Responsible Ministers for this project,
is available at Report of Environmental Assessment (EA). Other
approvals still needed include a water licence from the Mackenzie Valley Land and
Water Board, (which triggered the entire environmental
assessment); a decision on the possible re-routing of Baker Creek
which crosses the site, possible municipal approvals, and
establishing a community board to supervise the remediation.
The approved EA measures are very complex, and
will include freezing in place the huge underground dumps of
arsenic trioxide which pose the greatest health risk. (It is likely
to take 25 years to freeze it all. The freezing system will have to
be actively operated, forever. The arsenic will
stay poisonous – it does not improve with time.)
Above ground, one of the top priorities has been to pull down
("deconstruct") the huge roaster complex. Its high
concentrations of arsenic dust and asbestos made it one of the most
contaminated areas on the site, and therefore in all of
On October 31, @GiantMine tweeted "The final roaster
complex structure is down. The deconstruction project is nearly
complete. #yzfhttp://ow.ly/DE1zW". The project team anticipates
that the full roaster deconstruction project – including the
removal of heavy machinery and other wrap-up activities –
will be complete by March of 2015. Work is underway to design and
implement other parts of the remedial plan, including the freezing
The $1 billion remediation of the Giant Mine will consume a
large fraction of the federal government's Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan. This
means that many lesser, but still dangerous, site cleanups, will be
left unfunded. It also means that Canadian taxpayers will pay much
more to control the Giant Mine site than the total royalties
ever received from the mine. I suspect the same is true for the
Sydney Tar Ponds.
Are we making the same mistakes again with the oil sands?
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