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EDITORIAL: An arsenic cautionary tale

Well, that’s a relief.

A long-awaited study into the health impacts of arsenic at Giant Mine reveals that, at least as it concerns Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndilo’s current populations, those impacts appear to be minimal. The University of Ottawa study concludes that arsenic levels found in urine, saliva and toenail samples taken from area residents are on par with the Canadian average – about 5.4 nanograms per litre.

The study involved more than 2,000 participants.

Arsenic levels in children tested are slightly higher – 7.2 nanograms in volunteer samples and 6.6 nanograms in random samples – but still well below the unsafe threshold of 21 nanograms per litre. Researchers reason the higher levels found in children is due to their tendency to play around in the dirt where arsenic is likely to be found.

The fact of the matter is, at least today, despite decades of gold mining in the arsenic-rich rock around Yellowknife, the study shows the city is no Chernobyl or Love Canal. That’s good news.

But that’s not to say there is no serious contamination issue here. Giant Mine remains one of the most contaminated industrial sites in Canada. With 237,000 tonnes of deadly arsenic trioxide buried in underground chambers beneath the mine, it appears likely the abandoned mine site will own that distinction perhaps into perpetuity.

Cleanup at the mine is expected to cost taxpayers close to $1 billion, and the site will require continuous, indefinite monitoring to ensure the arsenic remains frozen underground. Risk of accidental release, however slight, will remain a concern forever long the arsenic stays there, which could very well be forever.

This is an unfortunate reality for a city anxious to shed its toxic legacy and embrace a future as a government and tourism hub in an otherwise pristine natural environment.

Much of the media attention paid to Yellowknife’s arsenic problem hasn’t helped. Type “arsenic trioxide” on Google and you don’t have to go very far down the list before stories on Yellowknife and its arsenic begin showing up in your news feed.

As the saying goes, “gold paved the streets” in Yellowknife, and Giant Mine played a major role in bringing that wealth. But the former mine is also a cautionary tale in poor regulatory and mining practices.

Ottawa turned a blind eye to the arsenic and sulfur dioxide belching out of Giant Mine’s roaster stack providing the resource royalty dollars kept rolling in. If people aren’t sick now, 20 years after former owner Royal Oak abandoned the mine and left it to future taxpayers to clean up, evidence of its health impacts on residents while the mine was still in operation is scant.

The sad fate of the young child in Ndilo who died after drinking arsenic-contaminated water in 1951 is well known but the government has only recently been interested in the health effects of arsenic around Yellowknife.

Hopefully, if there is any positive development to be borne by Giant Mine’s arsenic legacy, it’s that such deliberate recklessness and ignorance will never befall another Canadian mine site again.