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The forever problem

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jun 13/01) - The legacy of environmental damage left by Giant Mine will last, to borrow a phrase from Treaty 8, as long as the sun shines and the earth remains.

"All of the alternatives leave something behind that will have to be managed forever," said Daryl Hockley.

Hockley is the project leader for the international consultancy, Steffen Robertson and Kirsten (SRK), charged with figuring out what to do with the 237,343 tonnes of arsenic trioxide-laced dust stored in subterranean vaults at Giant Mine.

The 237,343 figure is the most accurate calculation to date of the amount of arsenic trioxide dust stored at Giant. The figure is a product of a pre-feasibility study that was the focus of a gathering of bureaucrats, consultants and environmentalists hosted by the Department of Indian Affairs and Norther Development's Royal Oak Project team.

The conference began Monday with a prayer from one of a group of Dettah and Ndilo elders. Michel Paper was among the only people in the Explorer Hotel conference hall who knows what Yellowknife Bay was like before the gold mines that flank the city were built.

Dettah elder Joe Martin said people in the village no longer trust the water in Yellowknife Bay.

"If people want to go fishing for eating they set their nets way past the fish plant (at Wool Bay)," said Martin. "Me, I go to Drybones Bay."

Martin said arsenic emissions from the mine forced local aboriginals to abandon the use of traditional medicines such as spruce bark, which they boiled down as a cure for colds and stomach aches.

Paper gave his blessing, with the chants of those around him, in his language. For some there, the results of the study didn't live up to the blessing.

What if...

The first day of the conference focused on what SRK called the unmanaged base case -- what would happen if we turned off the pumps that prevent the mine from flooding and walked away.

SRK engineers say that in a best case scenario arsenic would leach from the storage vaults into Back Bay at a rate of 500 kilograms per year. At that rate only scaup ducks in Baker Creek would suffer.

In the worst case scenario of 16,000 kilograms per year of arsenic entering the watershed, toxilogical benchmarks for mallards and scaup in Baker Creek, and hare, mink, moose and wolf will be exceeded.

To assess human heath risk, the study used seven 'receptors' based on diet and location, ranging from a marina worker at the Giant Mine townsite who eats ducks from Baker Creek and fish from Back Bay and drinks municipal water to an adult and child in Dettah who eat ducks and fish and drink water from Yellowknife Bay.

The worst case scenario would pose significant health risks for people on Latham Island who drink water from Back Bay and people at Dettah who drink water from Yellowknife Bay.

The release of 4,000 kilograms per year would pose a risk to the same adults and children on Latham Island.

Because each of the solutions required perpetual care, SRK's report was roundly criticized on a philosophical level by some delegates.

"I don't see any of them as solutions that get us where we need to be, and that's solving the problem not leaving it for our kids to deal with," said DIAND official David Livingstone.

Bob Turner said native people are being asked to trust officials, something he has found difficult to do. He recalled being told that on some days it was safe to drink the toxic brew of cyanide, ammonia and heavy metals in the Colomac Mine tailings pond.

"We want this problem either stabilized or gone," said Turner. "We don't want to be left with a time bomb."