Communicating Hazards to Future Generations – New Report

One of the key goals of the Toxic Legacies Project is to work with community groups in Yellowknife on how to communicated the hazard of 237.000 tons of arsenic trioxide frozen under the ground to future generations. To tackle this issue, several team members have read deeply into the work that was done at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the first U.S. nuclear waste repository is located. Over the past thirty years, WIPP officials have developed proposals for a complex system of signs, symbols, text, and archival repositories to communicated nuclear hazard over 10000 years. As we thought about Giant Mine, we realized that some issues are similar (the original plan was to freeze the arsenic forever) and some were very different (unlike a nuclear waste repository Giant Mine will likely require active maintenance for long periods of time). Also, the ground kept shifting under our feet (not literally, thankfully); the recently completed environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project resulted in a 100 year time frame being adopted (with the hope that new technology will allow for removal of the arsenic threat undeground). Even so, there are still some key issues to consider on transferring knowledge of the site between generations. We hope this report will provide a useful kick-start to discussion of this issue in the City of Yellowknife. You can access the full report or a short two page summary from the links below:

Communicating Danger Full Report 

Communicating Danger Two Page Summary

Abandoned mines research in Etudes/Inuit/Studies

TInuit studies coverwo papers from researchers working with the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada team (ArcticNet branch) appear in the newly released issue of Études/Inuit/Studies, as part of a special volume on Industrial development and mining impacts.

Heather Green’s paper, “State, company, and community relations at the Polaris mine (Nunavut), focuses on the Canadian government’s shift away from supporting mining developments in the late 1970s to early 1980s, on Inuit employment in the mining industry, and on the difficulties of Inuit from Resolute Bay in obtaining employment at Polaris, one of Canada’s pioneering High Arctic mines.

In “‘That’s where our history came from’: Mining, landscape and memory in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut,” Tara Cater and Arn Keeling investigate community experiences of historical and contemporary mineral development in the Arctic through an analysis of the cultural landscape of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Overall, this special issue of Études/Inuit/Studies provides important insights into past, current and future encounters of Canadian Inuit communities with industrial mining. The journal is available for order via the website linked above, and is subscribed to by many university libraries across the country.

Yellowknife Research a Success

In early June the Toxic Legacies Team converged on Yellowknife for our first major field research trip. Although things could have gone very badly (lost luggage with crucial camera equipment; 3 team members ill at one point or another), we had a fantastic two weeks of constant activities.

DSCN8992

John Sandlos and Arn Keeling spent a lot of time talking with groups and individuals about the issue of communicating with future generations (see a future blog on this) at Giant Mine. We met with Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck, talked with our partner group Alternatives North, met with a representative of the Giant Mine Remediation Team, and presented to the City of Yellowknife Heritage Committee.

We also hosted a fantastic workshop in Ndilo (with a bus bringing folks from Dettah), introducing the project to the Yellowknives Dene communities and holding a long discussion about how the Yellowknives’ traditional knowledge and stories might be used to communicate the hazard at Giant Mine to future generations.

DSCN9001

Mary Rose Sundberg spoke passionately in Weledeh about the importance of oral history, Kevin O’Reilly gave an overview of the perpetual care issues at Giant Mine, Johanne Black talked about her work on Giant with YKDFN Lands and Environment, Arn Keeling summed up the status of our historical mapping work at Giant, while our film crew (France Benoit, Ron Harpelle, and Kelly Saxberg) outlined their work on the “Guardians of Eternity” project.

DSCN8996

At all of our meetings, we were impressed with the depth of knowledge and expressions of commitment to the issue of ensuring that the Giant Mine site is commemorated so that does not represent a danger to those in future.

Our film crew was almost constantly at work, conducting interviews and building our stock of footage of the lanscapes surrounding Giant Mine. A highlight was a field trip to Burwash, the first small gold mining operation in Yellowknife (c. 1935) and community, and thus the first site of contact between the Yellowknives Dene and the new northern mining economy. In addition to the crew, the field group included the YKDFN traditional knowledge specialist Randy Freeman, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center staffers (local history specialist Ryan Silke and archaeologist Glen McKay), YKDFN member Fred Sangris, and John Sandlos (freed for a day from the archives).

DSCN7780

Beneath the bright sun and amid the emerging mosquitos, we surveyed what remains of the old townsite, looked for signs of Yellowknives occupation in the area (which dates back centuries), and talked about the history of the area at the site of the old mining shaft.

DSCN7723

As a result of our many discussions, we hope to create a local working group in Yellowknife that will discuss strategies for communicating hazard and the perpetual care requirments at Giant Mine to the near and distant future.

We are moving forward with all projects, so look for more updates in this space in the coming months.

 

 

The Ring of Fire Strikes a Familiar Tune

John Sandlos

With the launch of the Ontario Liberal election platform, Premier Kathleen Wynne made it official: a centrepiece of her campaign is a $1billion investment in infrastructure to spur mineral development in the “Ring of Fire” region 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay. With or without a matching federal investment, the provincial Liberals (and the NDP, Andre Horwath suggested in a recent leaders’ debate) would send millions of public dollars north to develop an access highway and spur roads to the region, unlocking vast chromium deposits and other possible mineral plays in copper, zinc, nickel, platinum, vanadium, and gold.

And what’s not to like about the proposal? The Ontario Chamber of Commerce suggested that mining development in the Ring of Fire could generate 5500 jobs and $25 billion in economic activity by 2047. The government’s investment in roads and infrastructure would be amply repaid through $2 billion in taxes and royalties. First Nations in the region have been divided on the question of mining impacts, but Wynne promises them representation on a private–public development corporation that will coordinate the broader project. The additional promise of jobs, training, and local investment is tantalizing for First Nations that are among the least affluent in Ontario. For a provincial economy that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years, and for First Nations who sit upon one of the most significant untapped mineral complexes in Canada, development seems a win-win for everyone.

History nevertheless offers a cautionary tale to the unbridled enthusiasm for mineral-led economic and social development in Canada’s remote regions. In an essay published two years ago in the journal Environment and History, Dr. Arn Keeling and I described how in the 1950s very similar boosterish rhetoric was applied to the a vast lead-zinc deposit at Pine Point on the southern shores of Great Slave Lake. In private meetings, at Royal Commission hearings, and in press statements, federal government bureaucrats suggested that development at Pine Point would lift local First Nations out of the moribund fur trade and stake their economic future on modern wage labour. According to the federal government and the mining company Cominco, the only thing needed was public investment in a rail corridor linking northern minerals to southern markets. The railroad, according to public officials, would be a great development project, stimulating mining development throughout the Northwest Territories with immense benefits for local First Nations and the national economy. The federal government ended up spending close to $100 million (about $790 million in today’s dollars) on the Great Slave Lake Railroad project, a spur extension of the Mackenzie highway from Hay River to the mine, and also a dam to provide hydro power for the project.

How successful was the railroad and the mine as a spark for northern development? There is no doubt that the mine, which operated from 1964 to 1988, was a highly profitable operation. But as a stimulant to broader social and economic development in the NWT, the mine and the railroad remained at best a limited success. Neither the government nor the mine developed local training and recruitment programs, while the highway was not extended westward to the Chipewyan and Metis community of Fort Resolution until 1972, severely limiting people’s access to the wage labour opportunities at the mine. Archival documents, oral interviews, and the work of other scholars suggests (Deprez 1973, Macpherson 1978), First Nations participation at the mine was extremely limited. Add in a lack of royalties and other financial benefits for First Nations plus the widespread local feeling that the cleanup of the mine was inadequate, and many people from Fort Resolution (and to an extent the Katloodeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River) believe they were stuck with a large environmental mess while receiving virtually no economic benefits from the mines. The Great Slave Lake Railroad failed to stimulate any other significant mining activity in the region; the spur line between Hay River and Pine Point was pulled out shortly after the mine closed due to low commodity prices in 1988. Although many people (Native and non-Native alike) have suggested that the town of Pine Point was one of the best places they had ever lived (a sentiment expressed in oral interviews we conducted and the Goggles brilliant NFB multi-media project), this too was fleeting as the town was completely demolished after closure. For many Aboriginal people in the South Slave region, the Berger Inquiry’s assessment of Pine Point as a form of mega-development that failed to provide significant economic benefits for the permanent residents of northern Canada holds still rings true across the many years since the mine shut its doors.

History, of course, never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The Ring of Fire does at least seem to hold more long term mineral potential than did the South Slave region. In addition, mining companies today typically sign Impact and Benefit Agreements with northern Native Communities affected by development, providing in some cases guaranteed jobs, financial benefits, and training opportunities (though these agreements are confidential so in many cases analysts lack knowledge of the details).

On the other hand, the case of Pine Point does suggest at least some reason for caution about the boosterish tone coming from Ontario politicians and industry enthusiasts. Public (and other) investments in mining ventures are always inherently risky, and geographically remote projects such as Pine Point and the Ring of Fire are particularly vulnerable to any significant slide in commodity prices, which can leave in their wake idle mines and shuttered communities. Also, our research on Pine Point and other mines suggests that mine labour often does not replace hunting and trapping activities, but often Aboriginal people move between the two economies in accordance with the relative advantages of each and the cultural priorities of individuals and communities. Mine employment is not necessarily a panacea for northern Native people, and First Nations concerns about the impact of mining activity on the hunting and trapping economy in the Ring of Fire should not be dismissed as reflections of “backwardness” in the same way as they were at Pine Point. At the very least, the lack of training and education opportunities at Pine Point offer an important warning to First Nations in the Ring of Fire, who are right to be wary of any rapid development timeframe that may neglect the pressing training, education, social impacts and environmental issues within their communities. The prevailing wisdom seems to be, if you build it–in this case a highway or a railroad rather than a ballpark–then they (the mining companies) will come. But unlike the dreamy world of W.P. Kinsella, simply building it does not necessarily wash away all problems, particularly the social, environmental, or economic problems that First Nations in the Ring of Fire currently face or that may be introduced as a result of mining activity.

 

Works Cited

Paul Deprez, The Pine Point Mine and the Development of the Area South of Great Slave Lake, (Winnipeg, MB: Center for Settlement Studies, 1973).

Janet E. Macpherson, “The Pine Point Mine,” in Northern Transitions, Volume I: Northern Resource Use and Land Use Policy Study, eds. Everett B. Peterson and Janet B. Wright (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1978), 65-110.

 

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.

[1]: http://nwt-tno.inac-ainc.gc.ca/splash/
[2]: http://www.abandonedminesnc.com/?page_id=470
[3]: http://research.library.mun.ca/638/
[4]: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100027395/1100100027396
[5]: http://www.reviewboard.ca/registry/project.php?project_id=69
[6]: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/giant-mine-s-arsenic-legacy-worries-yellowknifers-1.1264441
[7]: http://www.reviewboard.ca/upload/project_document/EA0809-001_Independent_Environmental_Oversight_Report_1328898833.PDF
[8]: http://www.reviewboard.ca/upload/project_document/EA0809-001_Giant_Report_of_Environmental_Assessment_June_20_2013.PDF
[9]: http://www.reviewboard.ca/upload/project_document/EA0809-001_Principles_of_Perpetual_Care-_Report_from_Alt_North_1329867038.PDF
[10]: http://www.abandonedminesnc.com/?page_id=504

Mining the Anthropocene

As part of my continuing participation in the MOOC run by Prof. Bruno Latour, here are some reflections on mining as an indicator of the planet’s entry into the Anthropocene. It was supposed to by accompanied by some funky data visualization, but I haven’t got the data in a format I need it and, well, time’s passing. So here’s the post:

Mineral exploitation is particularly suitable as a diagnostic of the Anthropocene for a variety of reasons, but most basically because of the radical temporal disjunction between the rates of formation of mineral resources (geological) and the rates of their exploitation and depletion (on the order of centuries or decades). If this new geological epoch is indeed characterized by human-induced change, it is well to reflect on the incredible rapidity of that change…

One “floating utterance” sometimes heard about the global impact of mining is that human mineral exploitation now moves as much surficial material as do geological processes such as weathering, etc. The volume of this material, the vast majority of which is “waste,” is on the order of thousands of millions of tonnes annually.

Statistics on mineral production reveal a similar Anthropocene “signal” as the metrics highlighted by Steffen in his TED talk video. By and large, this expansion has mirrored (and indeed, partially driven) modern industrial development. For instance, minerals for use in electrification (copper), construction/alloys (iron ore and zinc), armaments (nickel), as well as precious metals like gold (see below), all show exponential growth in production in the past century. These trends continue apace: global mineral production for all mineral raw materials surged between 1984 and 2011, from 9.4 billion tonnes to 16.6 billion tonnes.

gold_WMP

There are some important implications of this growth for considering the scope of Anthropocene impacts. First, declining ore grades (the amount of the target mineral in any given rock formation) has meant that, even as mineral production increased, mineral waste production did so even more. These days, target minerals are often fractions of a percent of the total material moved and processed, meaning that mines may have exponentially greater landscape and environmental impacts, perhaps best illustrated in the stunning photographs of open pits and mine wastes by Edward Burtynsky.

Second, reflecting the basic point about rates of extraction noted above, concern has emerged over “peak minerals,” the rapid depletion of key industrial minerals and the prospects for scarcity of key industrial minerals this trend suggests. Given the oft-repeated importance of minerals to modern industrial society, an interesting thought experiment might be to consider whether the end of these minerals might signal the end of this (perhaps short?) geological epoch…

Key statistical sources and charts: World Mining Data 2013, World Mineral Production 2008-2012 (Centenary edition)

Mapping the Giant Mine controversy

Following the previous post derived from my MOOC musings, I put abandoned mines back to work for the next course module, which asked us to tentatively “map” a controversy. The key questions to be addressed are:

  • What is the controversy about ?
  • Who are the actors of the controversy ?
  • How are actors connected ?
  • Where does controversy take place ?
  • When does the controversy develop ?

Using Giant Mine as a “controversy,” here’s what I came up with:

This controversy is one drawn from my research and is, at first blush, a typically “local” controversy over an environmental issue with a techno-scientific dimension (discussed in my post on techno-scientific objects). The controversy is about the Giant Mine Remediation Project, a plan to clean up an abandoned mine near the community of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The main challenge and controversy is how to deal with 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust buried in the former mine.

To start with the last question first, the controversy developed in the mid-2000s over plans by the Canadian government (through its Aboriginal and Northern Affairs department, AANDC) to freeze the material underground using thermosyphons. Initially, the government resisted a full public environmental assessment of the project, but public outcry led to a referral to the Northwest Territories regulator, the Mackenzie Valley Review Board, for review in 2012. In the Environmental Assessment process and in the media, various actors and interests mobilized to contest selection of this technoscientific solution (derided by critics as “freeze it and forget it”) and the governance processes surround the project. These actors included AANDC, territorial government regulators, the indigenous people of the area (Yellowknives Dene First Nation), the City government, an environmental NGO (Alteratives North) and others.

Arguably, lively non-human actors are critical parts of this debate–arsenic, of course, frozen underground but posing a persistent health and environmental threat, as well as the groundwater threatening to mobilize it into the environment and the shifting permafrost regime of this northern environment (which the thermosyphons are, in a sense, meant to restore to freeze the arsenic in place).

Because this is a “local” controversy (albeit one with arguably far-reaching implications), it’s not a controversy especially suited to the kinds of quantitative analytic tools so interestingly introduced in this module. Rather, it is ideal for an ethnographic and historical approach to ‘following the controversy’ although of course local and national media have played roles in shaping public debate at crucial junctures.

I’ve created a concept map using IMHC Concept Map tools to illustrate some of the links between these various actors, as well as indicating some of the key issues at stake for the intervenors. What this shows (somewhat messily!) is that there are a number of cross-cutting links amongst the players, due to regulatory responsibilities, activities, and even just the sorts of mundane connections one expects to see in a small social setting. Thus, there are “sides” in the debate, but they do not necessarily harden into intractable positions, even though there are significant divisions on key issues.

Giant - who is involved in the Giant controversy

I’m left to reflect on ‘where’ (in the sense discussed in this module) this controversy takes place. Clearly there are sub-controversies to be mapped, beyond the question of the suitability of the freezing plan and technology, some of which I’ve noted here: the questions of project costs (spiralling quickly); the demands for independent oversight (since AANDC is both the project proponent and regulator); and the question of the perpetual care of this toxic site (arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic forever). Macro controversies associated with this issue include:

  • the issue of environmental justice for indigenous people, who associate the mine with dispossession and the poisoning of their traditional territory;
  • the issue of citizen involvement and empowerment in environmental assessment
  • the issue of mine closure and remediation practices and regulation, and the relative responsibilities of government and industry for these problems;
  • and regulatory processes, seen as a key failing of the remediation proposal process.

In any case, because of these various issues, what appears at first to be a minor “local” controversy has a considerable technical, political and ethical “hinterland” that makes it a very rich controversy to follow, indeed.

On thermosyphons

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

cover

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

 

Arctic Extractive Industries Workshop

Early in October, Professors John Sandlos and Arn Keeling organized a workshop with the Rachel Carson Center (held at Memorial University in Newfoundland) on Extractive Industries in the Arctic. With scholars from around the circumpolar world participating, the workshop was extremely engaging, with much productive discussion about the past, present and future of the Arctic.

For a full workshop report, including acknowledgement of our supporters, click here.

For the workshop website, click here.

For a more reflective blog on the bigger issues associated with this workshop, click here.

Thanks again to all of our supporters and research assistants!

 

Opportunities for Graduate Study

Toxic Legacies and Northern Exposures Projects
Departments of History and Geography
Memorial University of Newfoundland
2014-2015

John Sandlos, Department of History, and Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, are seeking three graduate students at the MA level to work on projects related to the history and geography of toxins at abandoned industrial sites in northern Canada. These positions offer opportunities to work as part of an interdisciplinary team, and funding to conduct research travel in northern Canada as necessary.

Positions Available:

Two One-Year Master’s (MA) in History
The successful candidates will develop major paper projects on the toxic legacy of former industrial sites (mines, hydrocarbon developments, exploration sites) in northern Canada. One of these projects will assess the role of history and memory in the current controversy surrounding the environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project in Yellowknife, while the theme of the second is open.

Two Year Master’s (MA or M.Sc.) in Geography
The successful candidate will produce a thesis-based study of historical land use and ecological change in the Giant Mine area.

Comprehensive funding packages are available with opportunities to augment the amounts through scholarships or Graduate Assistantships.

MemorialUniversity 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. The university is located in St. John’s, a unique and culturally vibrant city set within stunning natural beauty.

Interested applicants should contact: John Sandlos (jsandlos@mun.ca) or Arn Keeling (akeeling@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/