Thursday, 9 August 2012

#YZF #NWT's Giant Mine...will pose a human health hazard ... forever

Essay: Deep time stretches our imaginations, not just our engineering prowess
"....One of the most human and humble things we do is to reach across generations. Conversations about deep time are taking place in community centers and kitchens across the globe, in places like Yellowknife, home to a First Nations community of Dene. Though Yellowknife's Giant Mine has been closed for nearly a decade, it will pose a human health hazard for such a long period of time we might as well think of it as forever. The site, near the Arctic Circle, houses the world's largest stockpile of arsenic trioxide tailings. Contaminants like these can persist in watersheds and food webs for longer than any 10,000-year clock will ever chime, and longer than burial structures are designed to safeguard chemical and nuclear waste. Keeping these sites safe for hundreds of thousands of years requires unprecedented feats of engineering - and of human imagination.
Though the Giant Mine has been closed for nearly a decade, it will pose a human health hazard for such a long period of time we might as well think of it as forever.
"...The Yellowknife Dene and a group called Alternatives North looked to how other Northwest Territories communities reconcile life among the layered legacies of the 20th century.
Engineers considered freezing the arsenic trioxide. Their plan to maintain the frozen tailings looked ahead a quarter of a century. The community wanted to know, what then? What of generations born beyond that? The heart of the matter: How do we safeguard harmful substances forever? "This is a unique problem in all of human history," Raffensperger later wrote. It is one of the most important challenges we must face as a society.
And so Raffensperger began drafting the principles of "perpetual care" to assist the Yellowknife Dene, and communities everywhere, to push regulators and decision-makers to extend the period of concern when caring for and healing hurt places. Released earlier this year, the Principles have already begun to reframe important conversations about long-term care of sites facing millennial problems with legacy pollutants. What responsibilities do we bear to our decedents? How should their rights influence how we organize ourselves and our economy, and what endeavors we as a society pursue? One idea that has already gained traction is the installation of legal guardians to stand for future generations, an idea Raffensperger, indigenous leaders and other visionaries have written about extensively.
Raffensperger returned from Yellowknife changed, charged, determined to inspire others to think about their responsibilities to future generations, particularly those living millennia from now. She invited each of us to become "beloved ancestors" even as we pursue environmental justice within this generation.
When Raffensperger visited Yellowknife, she toured the Giant Mine and its many abandoned buildings. She saw where the arsenic trioxide is stored.

Before leaving, she tossed into one of its open pits a gold ring she had brought from home. As she told me, harm happened in the process of cleaving – arsenic from gold, people from land, today's generations from those to come. So she returned the gold to reunite what has been cleft. This was an alternate form of inheritance, symbolizing the alternate legacy she hopes to leave. And there the ring will sit, perhaps for all time.

Rebecca Altman is a sociologist, a lecturer at Tufts University and a columnist at She serves on the board of directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network, at A version of this essay was originally posted at


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