Rethinking Remediation


Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, mine tailings dam collapse, February 2019 (Felipe Werneck/Ibama) Wikimedia Commons CC-SA

by Caitlynn Beckett and Arn Keeling

The recent tailings dam disasters at BHP Billiton and Vale’s mines near Mariana and Brumadinho in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine near Quesnel Lake in British Columbia, Canada, serve as stark reminders that mining is (as some in the industry quip) primarily a waste management industry. As spectacular events that garner international media and political attention, tailings failures illustrate the potentially catastrophic risks associated with managing the vast, complex waste streams from large-scale mining.

Beyond these headline-grabbing events, however, is the slow accretion of millions of tonnes of mine wastes at thousands of sites around the world, and their need for long-term management for human safety and environmental protection—even long after mining has ended. In reality, the industry has limited experience with the long-term assessment and care of tailings dams, and as the scale of extraction increases (with increasingly low-grade ore, meaning higher ratios of waste rock and tailings), the scope of such challenges is likely to increase. The industry’s response is to propose better engineering plans and better technology for monitoring and managing tailings facilities (Schafer et al., 2018). But the mistakes that lead to dam failures are also reflected in the mundane, day-to-day practices of how these wastescapes are (un)cared for, and the gap between engineering ideals and the liveliness of mine waste  (Flores and Ureta, 2018). As one engineer stated in relation to the Brumadinho disaster: “There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this method of construction… [when the structures fail]… it’s usually a combination of several things that should have been done but don’t get done.”

While Brumadinho and Mount Polley were working mines, the cyclical and volatile nature of mineral economies also means that particular extraction sites may be subject to sudden closure and abandonment, often leaving behind considerable environmental problems. There are an estimated 10,000 or more abandoned mines across Canada, ranging from small workings to large, complex post-industrial sites (Mackasey, 2000). Many of these sites have no identifiable responsible owner, and two federal Auditor General’s reports (in 2002 and 2012) highlighted abandoned mines as being amongst Canada’s most toxic sites, representing major public liabilities in the billions of dollars. Many of these sites are located in rural and remote regions, on the traditional territories of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. Around the world, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of such post-extractive sites (Worrall et al., 2009).

Likewise, across Canada, abandoned oil wells and smaller scale industrial sites represent a patchwork of ‘wastelands’ that continue to dispossess Indigenous communities and Lands—invisible post-industrial landscapes, except to those who live with them (Voyles, 2015). The leniency in remediation certification for such sites has only recently come to light. Post-extraction sites pose difficult technical and governance challenges: as Anne Dance (2015, p. 43) writes, “Efforts to mitigate the impacts of new and legacy mines are complicated by the highly site- and case-specific nature of reclamation; the lack of a clear, ambitious technical and regulatory definition or vision of reclamation; and the jurisdictional overlap and governance issues associated with cleanup.” Reckoning with the impacts of historical and contemporary extraction requires understanding of both the history of such developments and their ongoing legacies for local landscapes and communities.

Defining Remediation

Despite better technology, ideas of how to contain and mitigate pollution have changed little in the past 50 years: “[m]anagement via separation, containment, clean up and immunization – the hallmarks of the 20th century pollution control – are premised on a politics of material purity that is no longer available or was never viable to begin with” (Liboiron, 2018). Similarly, remediation techniques typically focus on setting up some kind of wall or barrier: concrete chambers, tailings impoundments, geomembrane covers, or, as at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine, ‘re-creating’ permafrost around toxic arsenic wastes stored underground (Fig. 2). To be effective, such installations will need monitoring and maintenance for generations to come. Yet the challenge of doing so in perpetuity is rarely confronted. As Nixon and others argue, pollution can be understood as a form of slow violence, as cumulative leaks, spills, and reactions effect human and more-than-human communities for generations to come. Remediation itself can become a slow disaster as efforts to control and manage contamination over long periods of time continually fail, or are cause for ongoing apprehension, stress and uncertainty.


Test pipes freezing arsenic-filled underground chambers at the abandoned Giant Mine, Yellowknife, NWT (Courtesy, Kevin O’Reilly)

As we discuss in our recent paper in Local Environment, when remediation relies exclusively on technical experts and “solutionism,” it tends to limit or circumscribe public participation or non-expert assertions surrounding risk and remediation goals. Terms such as remediation, restoration, reclamation, rehabilitation are often used interchangeably but their use usually overlooks the different local, historical, and value-laden meanings of post-industrial landscapes (Storm, 2014; Joly, 2017). A fascination/obsession with the idea of ‘bringing back’ pre-mining landscapes continues to pervade industry and government logic and rhetoric, despite mounting evidence that these references to historical fidelity are not only impossible, but also perpetuate colonial constructions of ‘pure’ or ‘native’ wilderness. Questions about who defines the past, and how this past is negotiated, articulated and memorialized, are typically overlooked in restoration discussions (Baeten, 2017). Managing contamination and repairing environmental damage is generally seen as ‘doing the good’ or making things better, and therefore can (purposefully) overlook the political and ethical challenges of what it means to clean up environmental harm, and what is made invisible in that process.

Remediation as Environmental Justice

Recent literature in ecological restoration suggests taking more relational approaches that confront conflicting (and power-laden) senses of place, ecological redemption, and notions of moral, cultural, economic and environmental value. However, this literature has largely failed to address the justice concerns attached to colonial erasure and responsibility for environmental violence – or with Indigenous scholarship on similar topics (LaDuke, 2005; Hoover, 2017; McGregor, 2018).  Acknowledgement of and reparations for environmental injustices and ongoing colonial dispossession of Land is often absent in remediation projects. Alternately, nearby communities (often Indigenous) look for methods to heal and reclaim landscapes that may both counteract and align with technocratic waste management practices, while incorporating reclamation of language, wellness, governance and sovereignty (Carroll, 2015; Hoover, 2017; Simpson, 2017; Greenwood, de Leeuw and Lindsay, 2018).

Examining the legal and political debates surrounding the remediation of uranium mines on Diné (Navajo) territory, Yaqui legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie proposes the development of an ‘ethics of remediation’ that would include objectives “to repair social or political connections, restore trust, and instill a sense of peace” (2015, p. 250). This ethics of remediation is also tied to calls for decolonization of Land and self-determination – the foundation of calls for Indigenous Environmental Justice. Following Tsosie (and other Indigenous scholars), we argue that remediation processes can and should be used as a process for addressing colonial environmental injustices, decolonizing Land, and holding settler institutions accountable for ongoing harm and dispossession. Remediation must confront ongoing colonial histories of waste and environmental destruction, not hidden under the glossy veneer of ‘clean-up’ projects. Such a dialogue could ensure the centering of Indigenous values in remediation plans, as well as develop practical strategies for direct socio-economic involvement in management, monitoring, governance and long-term care of remediated sites (Carroll, 2015).

Remediation as the Ethics of Perpetual Care

Yet, we also caution that such a framework risks remaining premised on achieving some kind of end-point, where remediation is complete: waste is contained, the community engaged, justice issues addressed, and some combination of economic, environmental and cultural value has been reclaimed. This presumption fails to recognize the ongoingness and indeterminacy of both the material effects of landscape degradation and the social relations constituted through environmental damage and remediation. The literature on “repair,” by contrast, challenges how environmental damage and pollution is normalized in extractive industries, while positioning repair as a site of ethical, creative and accountable engagement. In this sense, Ureta (2016) suggests, remediation should be understood as a political act of care. Framing waste management as care reflects everyday practices and the expectation of failure: “it proposes temporary and experimental ways to involve all the concerned parties in the search for alternative ways to live with our waste, in material, ethical, and political terms” (Ureta, 2016, p. 1).


Recapping tailings at the abandoned Rankin Inlet Nickel Mine, Nunavut, in 2011—nearly 50 years after closure. Arn Keeling photo.

Ethical approaches to environmental remediation need to be grounded in place and context. Thus, there is not any one set of best practices or some kind of overarching framework. Rather, we can begin thinking about what kind of questions need to be asked of remediation projects in order to resist technocratic ‘greenwashing’ and the perpetuation of settler colonial environmental management logics. Fundamentally, tailings management, and the broader remediation of extractive sites, needs to include a discussion of how we create, maintain or make invisible certain kinds of wasted space and bodies, and how we confront liability, responsibility and reciprocity over long time periods in contaminated landscapes. Among other things, foregrounding an ethics of remediation highlights how these projects might:

1) confront the settler-colonial foundations of remediation science and techniques;

2) ensure accountability to future generations of humans and more-than-humans who will occupy perpetually contaminated landscapes;

3) push ideas of remediation beyond strategies of containment, especially when we know that, statistically, these walls will fail at some point; and

4) engender and support equitable ways of living in wasted, contested and contaminated spaces

Following Ureta, we ask if rethinking remediation practices can help plan for living with ‘permeable,’ changing post-industrial landscapes, and in doing so, we can see this ‘chemical rubble’ for what it is: a geographically uneven creation that remediation can only partially address. Engaging Indigenous scholarship, art and activism points to framing the remediation of land as reclaiming relations of care and reciprocity through self-determination, language, governance and education, in addition to contamination management: remediation as not only care for Land, but care as Land (Bawaka Country et al., 2013; Simpson, 2017; McGregor, 2018).



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