Giant Mine and the underground parliament

Hi readers: As the final reflection post for the MOOC on Scientific Humanities convened by Bruno Latour, I composed this short report on a scientific or technical controversy/debate. It’s a bit late, so I don’t think BL himself will comment, but I hope some readers enjoy it…

At the abandoned Giant Mine in Yellowknife, a controversy I’ve been tracing for parts of this course, a kind of toxic parliament has convened below the surface of the earth. The participants are metaphorically but also sometimes literally drawn underground by arsenic: specifically, [the 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide][1] buried in subterranean chambers there, the byproduct of over half a century of gold mining and smelting. This massive toxic presence has sparked controversy over who is responsible for it and how to ensure it does not escape its interment and contaminate the environment. As a historical geographer, I have been [working with a historian and local community members][2] to both document and intervene in this controversy—in effect, attempting to both shape and join the underground parliament gathering to govern this site. The stakes for this institution are high: arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic to life forever, so creating durable yet flexible technological and governance interventions is critical.

The origins of this parliament are, of course, both political and socio-technical. Arsenic came to be stored underground after [attempts to engineer a solution to air pollution problems from gold processing at Giant Mine][3] led to the problem of the persistent materiality of arsenic, now in deadly trioxide dust form. These decisions were made (and contested) by experts such as mining engineers; the public and its representatives had little direct say in the matter of underground storage. The issue entered the public realm, however, when the federal government inherited the mine site and its toxic basement from the bankrupt mining company in 1999. Again, [plans for the containment or disposal of the arsenic][4] were mooted by scientific experts, with the public largely contained to the sidelines (although, somewhat confusingly, the experts and the regulators were employees of a government agency). The engineering solution was to freeze the arsenic underground, to be maintained in its frozen (therefore inert and immobile), through the use of thermosyphon technology (discussed in Module 3).

As so often in politics, the first bricks of this new parliament were the ones hurled by protestors. In this case, in 2008 the city government (in response to public concerns) and the local aboriginal First Nation triggered a public review of the project by the territorial government (recall that the agency proposing the solution is a federal one). The resulting [environmental review process][5] lasted several years, between scoping, reporting, and public hearings. Particularly during the 2012 public hearings, intense debates occurred surrounding the technical feasibility of the freezing plan, the feasibility and cost of alternatives (such as exhuming and reprocessing the arsenic), and the regulatory oversight of the project. At public meetings, [citizens expressed their anxiety and concern][6] about the proposed freezing and water treatment processes—as well as their doubt and suspicion of the expert reports prepared to justify them. As one noted, “I ain’t a scientist and I ain’t an engineer, I’m just a common citizen that lives in the community and is faced with the worry of what might happen.” He also lacked faith in public authorities to oversee the work properly: “It’s a constant reminder to me of the government’s lax attitudes toward industrial development in the North. So, when they say they’re going to clean something up, I want to believe them. But I have difficultly believing them.”

So here we have all the elements of a scientific humanities controversy: expert-driven technical processes, questions of public (and civic) authority, uncertainty about the outcomes of socio-technical interventions, and an overriding, if troubling, reminder of the deep entanglement of nature and society in the Anthropocene (as well as an example of the uncanny ability of waste, in its persistent materiality, to trace such associations). Yet, through the interventions of concerned citizens, activists, and local residents, we can see halting efforts towards disrupting the exclusive, anti-politics of technical decision-making and opening opportunities for ‘non-experts’ to intervene in (potentially) meaningful ways in the Giant controversy. For instance, one of the key recommendations advanced by citizen-activists during the public hearings was for the establishment of an empowered [independent oversight body][7] to provide ongoing feedback and governance of parts of the project (especially given the situation where the project proponent, the federal government, is also the regulator). Although the environmental assessment agency endorsed this recommendation in its [decision][8] last year, not surprisingly the project proponent has resisted establishing such a body with anything more than a consultative role.

Secondly, and here’s where our latest work on this issue comes in, local activists and First Nations have raised [critical questions around the (very) long-term governance][9] of this project, which proposes a solution “in perpetuity” to the question of arsenic management. Such questions were poorly addressed, indeed virtually ignored, in the technical planning process. Working with these citizen groups, we are exploring the issue of [how to communicate toxic hazards (and their containment) to future generations][10]—not unlike the problem created by nuclear waste storage, for instance. We believe that any solution to this problem is unlikely to be found simply in the domain of experts, but rather in a literal *parlement* where people, things and ideas (like “toxicity”) can be represented and given voice. The goal, then, is to convene a discussion where the actors include not only those ‘present’ (literally, being there now), but also those in the future whose presence we may struggle to conceive, but whose interests are no less at stake than our own.