Ghost Towns and Zombie Mines: The Historical Dimensions of Mine Abandonment, Reclamation and Redevelopment in the Canadian North

Pine Point Mine

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The history of mining is littered with stories of “ghost towns,” communities abandoned after the closure of the mine. The landscape left behind may appear inert and lifeless, abandoned by people and devastated by environmental impacts. How, then, does a closed, “dead” mine become a “zombie mine”?

The accepted model of the mining cycle suggests that closure and abandonment represent the final stages of mining wherever humans exploit finite mineral resources. Millions of orphaned, abandoned and unreclaimed former mine sites are spread throughout the globe at scales from small ‘dog-holes’ to extensive, severely degraded mining complexes, many without identifiable owners or operators. These mining operations often collapsed due to the twin pressure of low prices and high transportation and labour costs rather than ore exhaustion, so at least some abandoned sites have become ripe for redevelopment as commodity prices rise. Many also require remediation to contain or remove toxic threats or repair extensive landscape damage. In either case, the resurrection of a mine may produce a variety of historical and contemporary environmental, economic and social impacts for surrounding regions and communities. Indeed, remediation and redevelopment activities at abandoned mine sites may present new sources of conflict as histories of environmental change are literally reopened for negotiation through environmental assessment processes.

Throughout the north several large-scale mining ghosts are being reanimated as zombie mines. We define a zombie mine as site formerly closed/abandoned by its owner as uneconomic or exhausted, then later reanimated under new ownership and different circumstances, or exerting some sort of malevolent, beyond-the-grave material or symbolic effect on people or the environment. Our chapter examines two large-scale twentieth-century abandoned metal mining operations across the region currently undergoing remediation or redevelopment. At the former Giant Mine adjacent to Yellowknife, NWT, the planned remediation of the site has produced local controversy and confrontation with the historical legacies of the mine. For over five decades, from 1951 to 2004, Giant Yellowknife Mines and subsequent owner Royal Oak Mines collected arsenic trioxide dust from stack emissions and stored the material in exhausted underground mine chambers. Currently there is 237,000 tons of this highly toxic material under the old mine. The federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs is currently proposing to freeze the material using thermosyphon technology (heat-exchange piping systems similar to those used in skating rinks). This remediation plan will create a perpetual care scenario at Giant Mine; water, for instance, will need to be pumped forever for the scheme to be viable. Local concerns about the short-term danger associated with further underground development and the unknown long-term risks have prompted intense controversy and triggered an environmental assessment of the project. For the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the current toxic threat associated with the mine has reanimated the colonial history of land appropriation, air pollution and illness associated with the sudden arrival of the Con, Negus, and Giant Mines on their traditional lands.

Pine Point Mine
Pine Point Mine

Similar issues have been raised at the former Pine Point mine, an extensive lead-zinc operation on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. The mine, established by Cominco in 1964, produced millions of tons of ore from 47 open pits and two underground shafts before closure in 1989. The town established by the mine, Pine Point, was subsequently abandoned and completely dismantled. . Now, local Native communities such as Fort Resolution and the Katlodeeche First Nation (near Hay River) are confronting Tamerlane Ventures’ proposal to reopen site for bulk sampling and a potential full scale mining operation. While many local people welcome the prospect of jobs and economic development, they also recall the historical legacies of environmental change, low Native participation rates in the labour force, negative social impacts, and the sudden collapse of the mine and abandonment of the town.

Clearly the abandonment of a mine does not signal an end to the environmental and social conflicts generated at a mine site as the historical discord over mining developments are constantly revisted and renegotiated through the redevelopment and remediation phase. Contemporary mine redevelopment and remediation projects may have different social and environmental impacts than their predecessors, but they are often bound to the historical injustices associated with the original mine developments, particularly the marginalization of adjacent aboriginal communities. Current efforts by state actors and private capital to frame reclamation and redevelopment projects in exclusively technical terms obscures the fact that, as in other regions of the globe where mineral exploitation took place on aboriginal land, the colonial history of economic and environmental inequalities produced at the former mine sites persists in tandem with efforts to reaminate former mines in Canada’s territorial north.

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