Abandoned Mines: the Case Studies

Keno Hill Silver Mines

Located 85 km northeast of Mayo in the Yukon Territory, there are 34 abandoned silver mines spread over roughly 210 km2 of mountainous terrain at the Keno Hill site. Between 1914 and 1989, 6.8 million kg of silver were mined from the site by several operators and financial interests including United Keno Hill Mines Ltd., and Falconbridge. In 1989, United Keno Hill Mines closed the site for economic reasons and then became insolvent in 2000. In 2003, the Yukon Government took over the care and supervision of the site, but in 2006 they sold the mine to Alexco Corporation for future development of remaining silver deposits.

Significant environmental problems remain at the Keno Hill site. Local creeks have been contaminated with heavy metal-laden water that is draining directly out of the mine sites. Water testing data suggests that stream contamination in the area dates back at least to the mid-1960s. Moreover, unreliable and insecure dams at several tailings ponds present the further possibility of significant heavy metal contamination in local creeks and rivers. The mine site lies within the traditional territory of the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation.

Giant Mine

The territory around the Giant Mine was first staked for gold in 1935, but the Second World War delayed production until 1948. Stimulating the founding of the community of Yellowknife, and remaining in production almost continuously until 2004, the Giant Mine produced more than seven million ounces of gold. The deposits, contained in arsenopyrite mineral formations, necessitated the separation of gold from arsenic. Over four decades of production, 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust were collected and stored in underground chambers. In 1999 the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development assumed control over the site after Royal Oak Mines went into receivership. DIAND continued to assume responsibility for the arsenic issue (even after the mine was sold to Miramar Giant Mine Ltd.), and instituted a program of monitoring, capturing, and treating groundwater at the site to prevent contamination in the surrounding area. More recently, DIAND has proposed to resolve the problem of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine by freezing the material permanently underground using thermosyphons, which are pipes containing pressurized CO2 that will draw heat from surrounding rocks in perpetuity.

Eldorado Radium/Uranium/Silver Mine

Located on the east shore of Great Bear Lake, the mine at Port Radium operated almost continuously from 1932 to 1982. Initially, radium-bearing pitchblende ore was mined at the site, but with the U.S. entry into the Second World War the Eldorado Mining and Refining Company began mining uranium at the site in 1942 for use in the atomic bomb project. The company was secretly nationalized in 1944 and continued to produce uranium ores for the purposes of Cold War nuclear arms production until 1962. From 1964 until 1982, the company Echo Bay Mines extracted silver from Port Radium, but the site reverted to federal Crown land with the closure of the mine and Port Radium town site in 1982.

Recently, high rates of cancer and lung disease in the nearby Sahtu Dene community of Déline have caused a great deal of anxiety and controversy. By 1999, fourteen of the thirty Dene workers who were employed to transport uranium ore in burlap bags had died of cancer and there were ongoing concerns about radioactive contamination of the local environment. Under pressure from the Sahtu Dene, in 2000 the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development established the Canada-Déline Uranium Table (CDUT) to foster collaborative approaches to the remediation of the Port Radium site. In 2002, the CDUT released an action plan outlining research priorities (using science and traditional ecological knowledge, and also suggesting key concerns for the reclamation process. A final report (Canada Déline Uranium Table 2005) cast doubt on the direct health impacts of radiological exposures on Dene ore carriers, and declared the environmental hazards to be of a localized and ecologically benign nature. However, these findings remain disputed by the local community.

Pine Point – Lead / Zinc Mine

The Pine Point lead-zinc mine was opened in 1964 by Pine Point Mines Ltd., a subsidiary of mining giant Cominco, and was soon shipping 1,000 tons of high grade ore per day from a large site on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. Although the mine was a private venture, the federal government invested $100 million in infrastructure including a small hydro-electric project, and highway and railroad extensions to the site (Clancy 1987). In the early stages of the project there were very few Aboriginal participants in the labour force, in part because the government did not extend the highway to the nearby Denesuline (or Chipewyan) community of Fort Resolution until 1972). With the closure of the mine in 1988, the town of Pine Point quickly became a ghost town as miners searched for work in other locations. Local Chipewyan people complained, however, that the mining company had balked at a promise to fill in the 43 open pit mines that dot the landscape between Fort Resolution and Hay River, and that toxic seepage from the tailings ponds was leaking into Great Slave Lake.

Labrador / Quebec Iron Ore Belt

In 1954, the Iron Ore Company of Canada opened a large iron mine in the vicinity of Knob Lake. Eventually, the town of Schefferville, in Québec, arose to house miners and their families. The main purpose of the project was to ensure a reliable supply of iron ore to large American steel companies. Under different circumstances, both Innu and Naskapi families moved to Schefferville to find wage employment at the mine. The Innu, who were coming for the most part from Sept-Iles, settled around Knob Lake, before being moved to Lac John in 1956. In the same year, the Naskapi were relocated from Fort Chimo and Fort Mackenzie to the shores of Knob Lake by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The transition from a life spent on the land into a wage employment lifestyle involving mining labour was a significant historical event for these two nations. The eventual closure of the mine in 1982 had a major economic impact on the non-Native population of the town, and also on the adjacent Innu and Naskapi First Nations.

Several other iron ore mines continue to operate in the region, near communities such as Labrador City and Wabush, Labrador. We are interested in how these communities have weathered the boom and bust cycles associated with the mining industry, and how they commemorate and express pride in their mining heritage. We will also investigate how environmental problems such as dust pollution and massive landscape change have impacted workers and citizens in these mining towns.

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