Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine

John Sandlos (MUN history) and Arn Keeling (MUN geography) are travelled to Yellowknife in July to launch a public engagement and research partnership focusing on the “perpetual care” of a toxic mining waste site in the Northwest Territories. Working with academic partners, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Alternatives North, a Yellowknife NGO, Sandlos and Keeling received a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to study the toxic waste disposal plans at Giant Mine. The project, entitled “Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine,” seeks to generate both public engagement and deeper understanding around the challenges posed by long-term environmental contamination.

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Opened in 1948, Giant Mine was once one of Canada’s most significant gold producers, and is now one of its worst toxic sites. Over 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, the byproduct of roasting gold ore, are buried below the surface at Giant. Because the original owner went bankrupt, the site is now a federal government liability. Recently concluded public hearings in the NWT examined the government’s controversial plans to freeze and permanently store the arsenic underground—plans now estimated to cost nearly a billion dollars.

With their partners, Keeling and Sandlos will co-ordinate research into the historical legacies and future challenges posed by Giant Mine. The project aims to produce an oral history volume documenting the environmental and socio-economic changes experienced by the Yellowknives Dene as a result of mineral development.

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In partnership with the Yellownives and Alternatives North, the project will also examine how community involvement and Aboriginal knowledge can contribute to solutions surrounding the challenges of perpetual care and communication with future generations. The partners will conduct local workshops and fact-finding missions, comparing the Yellowknife situation with similar cases, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.

Finally, working with Ron Harpelle at Lakehead University and professional filmmakers, the team will also create and distribute a documentary film examining the long-term legacies of Giant Mine.

The three-year Toxic Legacies project is an outgrowth of Sandlos and Keeling’s Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project, a multi-year, SSHRC-funded investigation into the environmental and social legacies of industrial mineral development in Northern Canada.