This post introduces Sally Abbott Western’s recently published article in the The Northern Review, “Arsenic Lost Years: Pollution Control at Giant Mine from 1978 to 1999.”
In January 2016, I re-entered graduate school after a year off, determined to return to my original proposed subject for my master’s capstone. It was a case study too charismatic to forget: Yellowknife’s Giant Gold Mine and the 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide stored underground that resulted from over fifty years of roaster stack emissions. Because the assessment process was nearing completion by the time I had returned to school in January 2016, I missed my window to study the incorporation of traditional knowledge in the environmental assessment to remediate the mine.
My clearest option was to, instead, dive into the 10,000+ pages of archived scientific reports, letters, emails, newspaper articles, and regulatory transcripts gathered from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre NWT archives in Yellowknife. But look for what? The largest gap in the detailed written history of Giant was a period from the 1980s to 1999 when the mine closed. I knew from the work of my supervisors that concern around the threat of arsenic had never been fully resolved before the mine closure, so I set out to learn more.
My primary approach was to understand the extent of arsenic exposure as a community health threat. At the same time, I wanted to revisit conceptual threads I had discovered writing a previous research paper on the Sahtu Dene’s experience—and federal government’s assessment—of the Port Radium Uranium Mine on the Great Bear Lake in the 1940s and 1950s. I was fascinated by the work of historians Nancy Langston and Sarah Vogel, whose research focused on scientific and disease modelling in the evolution of industrial hygiene and pollution control measures in the postwar era.
In the case of the federal government’s investigation of the Sahtu Dene experience of uranium exposure, these theories enabled me to dissect how scientific modelling and knowledge, especially when wielded by bureaucrats, failed to understand decades of illness in the community. With Giant Mine, I had little oral history to draw from, so I had to piece together the story from settler media accounts, scientific reports, and recorded conversations between government and scientists. What had regulators concluded about the threat of arsenic before the mine’s closure in 1999, and through what logic?
It turns out I was writing the history of a regulatory conundrum. As the body of scientific and medical knowledge expanded throughout the 20th century, it was widely known by the early 1990s that, for carcinogenic substances, there was no threshold below which an exposure could be deemed safe. The resulting challenge for any given pollution regulatory body or public health organization is summarized by environmental scholar Robert Gibson in a 2005 paper on lead poisoning in 1965 Toronto:
“Environmental health cause-effect relations can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to prove: This is the case even when the questions involve a single contaminant acting on a reasonably well-defined population of receptors (e.g., children in specific neighborhoods). Years of research effort and shelves of carefully designed studies may still leave uncertainties about the threshold exposure and ingestion levels beyond which health damage may occur. Indeed, it is not safe to assume there is such a threshold. Because of the multiplicity of sources, it is difficult to link particular sources to particular exposures. And because of the multiplicity of influences on health, it is difficult to link particular exposures to particular health effects.”R. Gibson, We Just Don’t Know: Lessons about Complexity and Uncertainty in Canadian Environmental Politics, 148.
Considering proposed and active industrial projects like Giant, the difficulty Gibson describes creates a regulatory process fraught with uncertainty. It is impossible to determine the exact extent to which low-dose, long-term environmental exposure to a carcinogen, like arsenic, has made, or will make, community members sick. This fallibility of threshold modelling makes it challenging for regulators to push for more “dramatic” regulatory moves like negotiating with a mine operator to install expensive pollution reduction technology (as was the case of Giant Mine in its last decade) or postponing the development of a project until more robust community exposure data is gathered. For regulators at Giant—without a clear indication that inaction would cause imminent loss of lives—it was easier to lean on concrete economic gains to inform decision-making.
“The government has taken ownership of the clean-up and now it is taxpayers who must pay. “
But at Giant, no concluding decision was ever made. Giant’s final operator, Royal Oak, went bankrupt and the mine closed in 1999. Beginning with remediation discussions in the 2000s, the last two decades have seen significant shifts in the approach of regulators at Giant Mine. Federal and territorial governments have sponsored a program for testing arsenic in community members (a step they were unwilling to take in the 1990s investigations). And after years of impact assessment, planning, and permitting, the Giant Mine remediation has officially begun. But now, there is no singular actor to hold accountable or with whom to negotiate the ‘legitimacy’ of a toxin’s threat or reclamation costs (currently quoted at one billion dollars). The government has taken ownership of the clean-up and now it is taxpayers who must pay.