Freezing the Arsenic in Giant Mine
Air Date: Week of November 4, 2011
Canada’s Giant Mine contains one-quarter million tons of arsenic, a byproduct of years of gold production. To prevent the arsenic from leaking, the Canadian government plans to permanently freeze the area. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Dr. Joan Kuyek about making sure future generations continue to care for this poisonous problem.
GELLERMAN: Well, in the 20th century, it was the Northwest Territories of Canada that was gold country. A king’s ransom was taken from a dozen gold mines in the remote region, but none was bigger than the Giant Mine. It was a bonanza. For more than half a century, miners dug deep into the ground in search of veins of gold, but all that glitters at Giant Mine came with a deadly by-product: arsenic trioxide.
The mine closed in 2004, but the arsenic will be a problem forever. Dr. Joan Kuyek investigated the arsenic pollution at Giant Mine for the environmental group: Mining Watch Canada. Dr Kuyek, welcome!
KUYEK: Thank you!
GELLERMAN: So a lot of people got very rich on this giant mine - eight million ounces of gold. I did some math, that'd be about 13 billion dollars today.
KUYEK: I wouldn’t say a lot of people got really rich on it, actually, I think a few people got really rich on it. And for the people whose land it was on - the Yellowknife Dene First Nation - they basically got nothing out of it at all.
GELLERMAN: Well, I guess they got a lot of arsenic, because this thing - in extracting the gold - they wound up with about a quarter of a million tons!
KUYEK: Yeah, they did. And there’s arsenic all over the surface too, which has changed the groundwater and the soils. From 1946 when the mine opened, until 1951 when it was finally recognized that some children had died from drinking melt water from the snow - they just pumped the stuff straight out the stack.
And so it spread all over the area. And after that they introduced a bag-house, as they call it, to capture the arsenic-trioxide. They were captured as powder, and then they were blown underground into the drifts and shafts of the Giant Mine. And of course, there is some leakage starting to happen. This mine goes under the town of Yellowknife and under parts of Great Slave Lake.
GELLERMAN: Great Slave Lake is, what, the fifth largest lake in North America, I think?
KUYEK: I believe so, yeah.
GELLERMAN: So some of this arsenic seems to be leaking out. How do you keep it down underground?
KUYEK: So they’ve come up with a plan which isn’t a solution, but it’s an interim measure, to create a block of permafrost around and through where the arsenic is stored, and then maintaining that frozen block forever, or until some solution is found.
GELLERMAN: It’s the same kind of technology they use to make, like, ice rings- right?
KUYEK: Yeah, basically.
GELLERMAN: Well, it’s gotta be expensive.
KUYEK: Yeah, it’s expensive. The price that they’re talking about now is half of a billion dollars, but I’m pretty sure it will be a billion before they are done. And when you’re depending on permafrost, climate change becomes a huge issue.
GELLERMAN: The Canadian government is going to have to come up with the money. But if this is a problem that lasts forever, um, who is going to guarantee that the government is going to be around forever?
KUYEK: Well, we know it won’t be. (Laughs) Historically, the kind of civilizations we’ve built have only been around for 5,000 years. So it’s highly unlikely that anything that resembles what we have now will be there 5,000 years from now. And there are places that have been struggling with this - one of them being the Office of Legacy Management in your Department of Energy, which is having to deal with nuclear sites.
But we have no real experience with this. There’s a lot of really big questions about markers. When they were designing the waste isolation pilot project in New Mexico, they had panels of science fiction writers and archaeologists and others debating on the kind of markers that should be used so that future generations won’t see it as a challenge to disturb the site.
But one of the problems is most markers really say: ‘Look at me, we’re proud of this!’ This is one that's got to say: ‘Get away! Stay away; don’t touch this!' You know, it will kill you. And that attracts people rather than repels them most of the time.
GELLERMAN: Well, I’m thinking of the pyramids, you know, they’ve been around a couple of thousand years, but they put curses on those to prevent people from raiding the tombs.
KUYEK: Well, it didn’t work, did it? (laughs) The tombs have all been raided. They’re crumbling. I think there's always associated with these … the isolation of these contaminants - a sort of wishful thinking that the next generations will figure out what to do with it - that somehow technology will evolve and they will figure out what to do.
The problem is that we’ve opened Pandora’s box. We've created things that we can’t control. One of the things that you might want to know, Bruce, is that there's, in fact, 217,000 sites that will require perpetual care in the United States that we know about and there’s probably a lot more.
GELLERMAN: There are 217,000?
KUYEK: Yup. Roughly one in four Americans, including 10 million children, live within four miles of a toxic waste dump. And we just ignore it. Your culture and ours are the kind that just sort of say: "Oops! You know, we’ll figure it out later." We’re get it done people, right? And that means that we often just don’t pay attention to the consequences of what we do anywhere.
GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Kuyek, thank you very much.
KUYEK:You're more than welcome, thank you.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Joan Kuyek founded the environmental group: Mining Watch Canada.
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