On thermosyphons

I’m taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from science studies guru Bruno Latour called “Scientific


Humanities.” As part of an assignment, I wrote about the idea of thermosyphons  (including those being deployed at Giant Mine) as a “sociotechnical project.” I thought I’d share the post here:

The Thermosyphon: cold technology, hot issue.

As Prof. Latour tells us, “any object is only a temporary stage extracted from a series of transformations the initial project had to undergo to navigate a range of opponents and supporters…” (paraphrasing a bit here). So it seems to me (pace Lepawsky and Mather), that we need to start *in the middle* and avoid the implicit stability and linearity of the association/substitution diagram (even with its detours), while preserving the essential traceability of these relations and moves.

So, come with me to Northern Canada, to an abandoned mine just outside of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, where we encounter these strange, ranked, tube-like figures on the landscape, clearly not part of the old mine. They are **thermosyphons**, and here in Subarctic Canada (perhaps paradoxically), they are intended to keep the ground *frozen*, so as to protect people and nature. ![Thermosyhpons at Giant Mine][1]

Thermosyphons are at once a novel and mundane technology–[simple science][2], according to one news report–now at the centre of an intense controversy about how to properly remediate an abandoned mine and protect the local environment and communities from poisons buried in the mine. But to understand why this is controversial, we need to trace this project back to the point at which it moved from mundane, if somewhat clever technological object (no more fascinating, in some ways, than a straw), and forward to when it moved the centre of a dramatic debate about toxicity, climate change, and the future of human existence on earth.

Like so many ‘inventions,’ thermosyphons are at once simple and ingenious. They are a two-phase convection device that consists of an enclosed tube and a gas/fluid medium (carbon dioxide) that allows heat to be transmitted from one end of the tube to the other, with no artificial power or refrigeration. Their use in cold regions dates to the 1960s, but they really took off in the 1970s as they began to be used to solve problems of construction and ground stabilization in permafrost environments.

See, when people disturb the surface (vegetated or otherwise) of permafrost (areas of ground permanently frozen below a certain level, even in summer), that permafrost ground becomes unstable, which can lead to slumping, heaving, etc. In addition, the surface material in many northern regions isn’t really great construction material for dams and mine tailings facilities–it’s porous, and tends to leak and slump. So in the 1970s, engineers began experimenting with “frozen core” dams, using the natural cold of the environment to provide a solid barrier against water. Applying thermosyphons, they could ensure these dams would remain stable, even in the warmer summer months, by keeping the frozen core cold through the air/gas exchange process.

The same issues apply to the built environment: roads, railways, pipelines, buildings, etc., all tend to degrade permafrost; one way to keep the ground below these installations solid is to install themosyphons, which keep the ground nicely cold year-round. This technology is now widely used in circumpolar regions, including in Yellowknife, where the parking lot of the territorial legislature sports thermosyphons to keep the pavement (relatively) secure. It’s also used for hockey rinks. Very Canadian.

Behind (well, not far behind) this technology is a body of knowledge and suite of actors familiar to many northerners: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for one, but also many mining and civil engineers, consultants, construction companies, town planners, and (likely) insurers, all with a common interest in keeping the ground cold, even as they transform it. Capital and entrepreneurs, too, play their role: as a recent [Wall Street Journal][3] article noted, the Alaska company Arctic Foundations now supplies the circumpolar world with thermosyphon technology. Indeed, as the article notes, the company and its technology have an ever-more important role to play as northern regions face a new challenge to their comfortably (?) familiar cold environment: climate change is rapidly altering permafrost regimes in the north and presenting new engineering challenges to industry and infrastructure in the region. Stay tuned: like the deus (diabolus?) ex machina, Klima will return in dramatic fashion to the thermosyphon story.

Thermosyphons to the rescue

The thermosyphon comes centre stage in this story as the proposed solution to the immense and frightening techno-political problem of how to deal with the toxic legacy of a bankrupt and abandoned gold mine in Yellowknife. The Canadian government, inheritors of this dubious legacy, conducted a series of engineering studies in the mid 2000s to find the best solution to the disposal–or securing–of the 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide left behind by mining that the local community feared would ultimately poison the environment. As the government’s [Giant Mine Remediation Project][4] website is at pains to point out, in seeking a solution, federal authorities sought the advice of expert [technical advisor][5] and an [Independent Review Panel][6], consisting of nine recognized experts in the fields of geotechnology, mining, mineral processing and environmental engineering, toxicology, hydrogeology, risk assessment, and public health. The government ultimately proposed the “frozen block method,” essentially proposing to freeze the arsenic in place underground (it’s not frozen now; permafrost has been disturbed) and to maintain that frozen state using thermosyphons “in perpetuity.”

Here’s where those thermosyphons start to look, for many in Yellowknife, less like friendly symbols of stable ground and more like harbingers of an uncertain and scary future. During the environmental assessment process for the proposal, some experts and many members of the general public (including local indigenous communities) challenged the suitability of thermosyphons as a guarantor of future frigidity, citing the need for ongoing maintenance and occasional replacement. Thermosyphons, with their simplicity and lack of need for external power sources, were touted by the government and technical supporters as key to their suitability for the “long term” solution to the problem; but it is the very question of *how long this term is* that opponents seized upon in their criticism. What about seismic events, they asked? What about climate change, occurring more rapidly in Arctic regions than anywhere else on the planet? Could this friendly technology handle the load? Government experts answered yes, but the criticisms registered strongly with the regulators reviewing the project.

Perhaps even more pointedly, some raised the question of the maintenance of this site, “in perpetuity.” How is it possible to ensure the stability and effectiveness of this technology into a long-distant future, much less beyond the political whims of elections cycles and budget priorities? How can we ensure that future generations understand why these skinny sentinels stand at this site, and the nature of the danger that lies beneath, poison to all life?

As a sociotechnical project, the thermosyphons at Giant Mine ramify like few others I’ve encountered (though no doubt, like many others I haven’t given a thought to). The debate over their use at Giant Mine is ongoing, and I’ll be following their transformations in my research, as I try to understand some of the questions they raise about extraction, justice, care, and (yes) technology.

[1]: http://www.abandonedminesnc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Pine-Point-009.jpg

[2]: http://www.ktuu.com/news/news/simple-science-keeps-alaskas-permafrost-frozen/24445196

[3]: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704576204574531373037560240

[4]: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100027395/1100100027396

[5]: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100027449/1100100027450

[6]: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100027443/1100100027444


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.

Abandoned mines at IPY 2012

The Abandoned Mines team has a strong presence at IPY 2012 in Montreal, the final meeting of the most recent International Polar Year. Three students have posters highlighting their work: Scott Midgley on Nanisivik and Svalbard; Heather Green on the Polaris Mine; and Tara Cater on Rankin Inlet. In addition, there are papers being delivered tomorrow, between 3:30 and 5 p.m. (room 520d in the Palais de Congres, for those of you in MTL), by John Sandlos and Arn Keeling (on Rankin Inlet) and Scott Midgley (on Nanisivik). Look us up if you can!

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.

New paper explores legacies of Pine Point Mine

Hot off the press: in the latest issue of the international journal Environment and History, abandoned mines researchers Arn Keeling and John Sandlos critically examine the failures and contradictions of mega-project resource development in the Canadian North, through the case of the Pine Point Mine in the Northwest Territories. Based on archival research and our own exploration of the Pine Point landscape, we write that “while the mine and planned town built to service it flourished for nearly a quarter century, the larger goals of modernisation, industrial development and Aboriginal assimilation were unrealised.”

Operating from 1964 to 1989, the Pine Point mine provides important touchstones for contemporary debates about northern resource development, economic stability, and environmental sustainability. At the time of construction, the mine was heralded as a catalyst for an economically depressed region, and the federal government poured nearly $100 million in direct subsidies for infrastructure to support the mine. This included construction of the Great Slave Lake Railway from northern Alberta to the southern shores of Great Slave Lake, to transport ore from Pine Point to the Cominco smelter in Trail, B.C.

An street in the abandoned town of Pine Point (J. Sandlos)

Today, the abandoned mine and town at Pine Point present a remarkable landscape: shorn of all buildings, all that remains the former town of 2,000 are cracked streets and sidewalks. Similarly, the mine operation has been dismantled, leaving behind a lone powerline and an extensive landscape of open pits, waste piles and haul roads. The once productive landscape is derelict, slowly being recolonized by vegetation and animals. (The social history of the former town has been explored in an imaginative recent multimedia exhibit hosted by the National Film Board, “Welcome to Pine Point.”)

In the article, we examine the rationale behind the mine’s development and its impact on local First Nations communities. Our interpretation of this history draws from political ecology to argue that “the forces of mega-project development joined with modern mining’s technologies of ‘mass destruction’ to produce a deeply scarred and problematic landscape that ultimately failed in its quest to bring modern industrialism to the Canadian sub-Arctic.”

John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, “Claiming the New North: Development and Colonialism at the Pine Point Mine, Northwest Territories, Canada,” Environment and History 18, 1 (Feb. 2012): 5-34. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/whp/eh/2012/00000018/00000001/art00003

Northern Gateway Pipeline Inquiry and Joe Oliver’s Media Frenzy

by Hereward Longley

Recent comments from Joe Oliver are damaging to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline hearings not as much from persuasiveness but from distraction. Like the ethical oil argument, Oliver’s accusations about foreign puppeteering of Canadian environmental groups has distracted from the more important points of debate (tanker traffic, energy security, manufacturing jobs, pipeline ruptures, climate change etc.) and occupied the media spotlight on the opening of the hearings.

Much time was wasted and ink was spilled (including this piece) in discussion of Oliver’s letter. News sources across Canada were clogged with coverage and discussion. The executive director of the Sierra club, John Bennet, made likely his most watched T.V. appearance, hopelessly debated Kathryn Marshall from the Ethical Oil Institute, a display reminiscent of the 2000 presidential debates between Al Gore and George Bush.

The comments polarize Canadians over the incredibly complex issues of economy, energy security, and environmental protection by saying that if you’re against the gateway you’re against Canada. As a piece of PR it was really quite brilliant but absolutely terrible for the tone and quality of political debate in Canada.

The debate about foreign influence on oil sands policy is an important, though not paramount in the pipeline inquiry. Terry Glavin wrote a great article on the scale and significance of foreign investment in oil sands development. However this article is testament to the power of Oliver’s comments in distracting from more important issues.

One of best direct responses to Oliver’s letter, was from Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party. Her letter seeks re-frame the debate to issues of energy security, environmental protection, climate change, and the economy.

But more significantly, May’s letter reveals the power of the aggression of the rhetoric Harper government, as her letter takes remarkably centrist position on environmental policy for a Green Party MP. She does not mention climate change until her last sentence, and her discussion of the need to build refineries in Canada to bolster Canadian energy security and jobs is structured in much the same terms as was former Conservative Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s statements in a November interview with the CBC opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.

Yet there are some noteworthy exceptions from Oliver’s media frenzy that deserve much more attention.

Nathan Vanderklippe wrote an article about how the courts and parliament will play the defining role in the Northern Gateway decision, in spite of whatever outcome emerges from the inquiry.

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route. Map by Google.

A feature by Ian Brown drawing connections from J.B. Tyrell’s 19th Century surveys of the Athabasca region to Thomas Berger’s 1970s Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry and how this legacy can be applied to the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings.

A report published in November, by David Hughes, a geologist who worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources for over 30 years, presents a scathing set of arguments about the Enbridge proposal and the urgent pressures to expand bitumen export infrastructure. He argues that current infrastructure can export the existing and planned production, that the Northern Gateway is unnecessary. Further, he posits that Enbridge figures of projected growth of oil sands production are misleading and speculative, and we are rapidly liquidating the richest surface reserves, meaning bitumen extraction will get significantly more energy intensive and expensive as the resource is developed. The life spans of oil sands leases are relatively short, with the newly approved $9bn Joslyn North project only to last 20 years. Reports such as this hint that Canadian taxpayers may in the next few decades be left absorbing the costs of a collapsing Fort McMurray and festering abandoned oil sands leases amidst a domestic oil shortage.

This report received some publicity from news outlets towards the end of 2011. Despite being far from an environmentalist himself, comments on the Globe and Mail’s coverage of the article suggests that many have written off Hughes’s report as environmentalist propaganda, as the report was commissioned by Forest Ethics. This week, Andrew Nikiforuk again covered the report in The Tyee. Unfortunately, this is one of the only media mentions of the Hughes report, and being a smaller paper, The Tyee does not generate the web traffic of bigger Canadian news agencies and it is unlikely the article was widely read.

Hereward Longley is an MA student in history, working with the Abandoned Mines project on the history of oil sands development.

Opportunity for Graduate Study

Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, and John Sandlos, Department of History at Memorial University are seeking one graduate student at the PhD level to work on the historical geography and environmental history of resource development in the Circumpolar Arctic, starting Fall 2012.

The successful candidate should maintain a strong interest in resource development issues in the Arctic, particularly the social, environmental, and economic impacts of development on local communities. This student will join a dynamic and diverse graduate program at Memorial, including students working on the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada Project (www.abandonedminesnc.com).

Comprehensive funding packages (including funding for research expenses) are available pending the outcome of current grant applications. There will be opportunities to augment the fellowship amounts through scholarships or Graduate Assistantships.

 Memorial University of Newfoundland is one of Canada’s leading comprehensive research institutions. It hosts the largest library in Atlantic Canada in addition to specialized research centres such as the Maritime History Archive and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. The university is located in St. John’s, a unique and culturally vibrant city set within stunning natural beauty.

Interested applicants should contact:

Arn Keeling akeeling@mun.ca or John Sandlos jsandlos@mun.ca

Although the funding packages are tied to the researchers, prospective students must follow the formal application process for graduate school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. For more information on the School of Graduate Studies go to http://www.mun.ca/sgs/home/. Find out more about the Department of Geography at http://www.mun.ca/geog/graduate/.

Uncovering Inuit Voices: Interviewing Elders in Rankin Inlet

by Patricia Boulter

Although Inuit voices, experiences and actions can be accessed (to a certain extent) from archival documents and anthropological reports, it became central to our research to understand first hand how the mine has been memorialized and remembered in the minds of Inuit. As a result our research team conducted 10 interviews with elders (men and women) who had either worked in the mine or had lived in the community while the mine was operative. From these interviews we heard an array of personal stories and histories associated with Rankin Inlet’s mining history and the many socio-economic and cultural upheavals that were occurring simultaneously. The stories ranged from being celebratory and nostalgic to cautionary and tragic. Many people  had fond recollections of the “good old days” and stressed the important role the mine had played in their lives and the continued importance of mining in Arctic communities. Others, however, referenced the hardships faced when they relocated/migrated from other regions in the eastern Arctic to Rankin Inlet, the poverty experienced by many upon arrival and the difficulties adjusting to life in a settled community.


Trish interviews a Rankin elder, with the help of translator Peter Irniq and cameraman Jordan Konek.

By the time the last interview was conducted I realized that a connecting theme, adaptation and survival, had weaved its way through each individual interview. As Peter Irniq and many others stressed through the telling of their own stories Inuit were and are a highly adaptive people. As I began to process what each individual had shared in their interview, it struck me that we had spoken with members of a generation of Inuit who had been born into a world that no longer existed except in their own memories. Each elder we interviewed, to a certain degree, had experienced and survived (either personally or collectively) famine, relocation, residential schools, TB clinics, government directed settlement, insufficient community infrastructure, poverty and other upheavals. Although the transition for many Inuit from igloo to mineshaft was difficult and emotionally fraught, these past realities did not saturate their memories of those times. Despite the fact many Inuit had come to Rankin Inlet solely to find work in order to make a living after the collapse of the fur trade and caribou herds, the community (for many) very quickly had become their home. Even after the mine closed in 1962 many Inuit (more than half) decided to remain in the community. When asked during our interviews, elders were extremely proud of the role Inuit played in the opening of the mine and ultimate survival of the community (now the second largest in Nunavut). It was a humbling experience to hear their stories, for in their minds the feelings of surviving and adapting as a community were the most cherished.

Although certain individuals’ perceptions of Rankin Inlet’s mining era had shifted toward the nostalgic, when compared with interviews conducted in the early 1970s, the way the mine was remembered became the most fascinating aspect of conducting oral history research. Oral history is not about collecting facts and figures, it is meant to capture how individuals perceive and interpret their past and how and why these interpretations change over time. Without having collected oral histories it would have been next to impossible to ascertain from written archival records the various emotional connections and reactions Inuit men and women had toward the community and their connection to the mine. In other words in many instances for Arctic history to be written and understood properly it is essential that southern based researchers strive to generate networks, pathways and relationships between Inuit communities. For in the words of Arctic historian Shelagh Grant, “without an Inuit voice telling their story, there can be no true representation of Inuit history.”


Shelagh Grant. “Inuit History in the Next Millennium: Challenges and Rewards” in Northern Visions edited by Kerry Abel and Kenneth S. Coates, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001): 106.


Inukshuk at Rankin Inlet