By Rosanna Nicol (Coordinator, Toxic Legacies Project) and Arn Keeling (MUN Geography)
The Toxic Legacies Project examines the history and legacy of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine. The community-involved project is a response to the Canadian government’s Giant Mine Remediation Project to freeze arsenic underground in perpetuity on land used by Dene First Nation, a project that has recently undergone and extensive environmental assessment. Given the temporal nature of the project, one aspect of the Toxic Legacies Project is Communicating with Future Generations.
The week of June 8 we held a number of workshops in Yellowknife and Dettah to get folks thinking creatively about how they would communicate to future generations the dangers at Giant Mine and its management needs. The timing was perfect: the Remediation Team was holding surface remediation options workshops the following week.
Our discussions, intentionally unconstrained by physical and financial realities, were a great way to get the ideas flowing before entering into a week of considering technical options of surface remediation of the site.
The workshops were centered around an interactive design activity where participants worked in small groups using an assortment of materials and odds-and-ends to design a monument at the Giant Mine. Minimal instruction was given – rather, it was a safe space for creative experimentation. We held four separate monument-building activities, mostly focussed on youth and one public event in the evening in Yellowknife (which ended up centering around radio interviews with a local journalist). A number of the activities were specific to Yellowknives Dene youth; only the evening workshop in Yellowknife included adults and we joined in as well. It was particularly silly, and quite lovely to see grown adults with extensive knowledge of the site and issues surrounding it translating their ideas into miniature landscape models.
In all the workshops, and especially in those where participants were previously engaged with the issues (which often comes with a lot of fear and overwhelm what with living next to an extremely contaminated site with no known solution), the inherent silliness of playing with scrap material coupled with the gravity of the issues made for a kind of absurd, cathartic experience – part of the charm and success of these activities.
Below is a short summary of the workshop structure and some reflections on the results including photos:
The participants were briefly introduced to the situation at Giant Mine, the arsenic containment plan and the possibility of perpetual management requirements. Lessons and ideas from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project relating to nuclear waste were introduced, with a focus on Level 1 and 2 messaging using monuments and “menacing earthworks.” Participants were given between 20-40 minutes to work on their design and then each group introduced their concept. In spite of the obvious differences in conceptual engagement with the idea of communicating with the future, some interesting commonalities stood out in these sessions.
- Containment: given the arsenic is underground and is forecast to stay there, most builders included some form of containment, backed with a strategy of exclusion. Strategies varied, from deep isolation of the arsenic chambers, to securing the perimeter. Fencing of various types, whether walls, electrified barriers, or moats, aimed to exclude unwary and/or unwanted folks from the site.
By and large, containment and exclusion went hand in hand, although some presence of humans (in the form of technical personnel) was often incorporated, and some included information centres and messaging outside the perimeter (see point 3 below). Nobody seemed worried about animals or anything on the site. Some models envisioned facilities for the maintenance of containment (freezing structures, thermosyphons, monitoring stations, etc.). In other words, the key to the site for many was the ensurance of permanent containment of arsenic; the theoretical possibility of containment’s obverse, leakage, was not really addressed.
- Surveillance: in addition to containment and exclusion, surveillance was a surprisingly common element of these models–especially amongst young people. Guard towers with domed observation decks, cameras, and other forms of site surveillance (outwardly or inwardly directed) were common.
Not sure what this says about the apparent banality of surveillance and security in our time…. But it seems to indicate a strong feeling that not only is the site dangerous, it is dangerous for people to access the site. Some folks (again, especially kids) worried about people getting at or releasing the arsenic (like terrorists).
- Messaging: Without a bit more discussion around envisioning future societies, we think this aspect of the project was underdeveloped.People made signs of various kinds, but there were few examples of various “levels” of messaging, the question of language, or the use of symbology (with some exceptions). I guess there were a few examples (using the chess men or little people) of using totemic figures to warn people from the site. Mainly, There were signs–lots of signs, mainly aimed at supporting the mission of containment/exclusion.
- Reclamation/remediation and use: Somewhat related to point 1, there was a range of forecast land use goals envisioned, implicitly or explicitly. One of the Dettah youth focussed on leaving the site “ugly” and unusable (an idea which, incidentally, got some traction with Johanne and others at the remediation workshop).
Partly here the idea is that ugliness would preserve the message of danger while restricting future land uses. Quite fancifully, one elementary school group made their site a recreation facility, complete with zip line! Most models seemed to track a kind of middle ground on end land use, with contaminated areas not being really used at all but some areas subject to remediation for use to some standard.
Certainly, it raises the issue that reclamation and other strategies at the site are ultimately guided by both the issue of waste and contamination as well as that of potential future land uses–something to keep in mind as we work up this material.