A reporter takes a photo in front of Giant Mine's former mill in September 2022. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Experts scrutinizing remediation work at Giant Mine say residents need to make sure they know what to expect once that work is finished.
The Giant Mine Oversight Board is an independent group set up to oversee the federally led remediation project at the mine, where 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide are stored underground.
Since the mine ceased production in 2004, the site – on Yellowknife’s doorstep – has become a primarily federal responsibility. Active remediation is now expected to last until 2038 and cost more than $4 billion.
But oversight board chair David Livingstone said residents need to understand that even after 2038, the Giant site will be nothing like its original state a hundred years earlier, before the mine opened.
Parts of the site “will still be accessible” and some will be “basically returned to a residential level of safety,” Livingstone said, but other areas will remain fenced off with no public access.
“Once the surface remediation is complete, do people expect that they will be able to just go back on the site, hunt, fish, gather berries? Do they understand the nature of that site? It’s not going to be a park,” he told Cabin Radio.
“It’s not going to be a particularly pleasant place to be. It might be relatively safe for short-term excursions but, you know, I don’t think that many people will want to be camping out there.”
The main concern remains whether northerners are receiving enough economic benefit from the billions of dollars being paid to remediate Giant, Livingstone said.
He added that the oversight board is also looking into ways to permanently deal with the toxic arsenic trioxide dust beneath the mine. The current federal plan is to freeze the dust in place until a better option is found. Livingstone said turning the dust into a form of glass could present a better way forward, and research is ongoing.
One consequence of finding a better permanent solution is that the Giant site would almost certainly need to be worked on once again to complete that work, meaning the current remediation project is probably not the last the site will face.
Ahead of Thursday’s public meeting, you can learn more about the work at Giant and the oversight board’s views in our interview with Livingstone.
You can read the transcript below or play the audio using the player above. You can also tune in to Cabin Radio at 12pm MT on Monday, May 29 or 6pm MT on Wednesday, May 31 to hear the interview.
This interview was recorded on May 25, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What’s your background in all of this? How did you become involved?
David Livingstone: I’ve been living in Yellowknife for about 35 years, now. In my earlier career here, I was the director of renewable resources and environment with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, way back then. Part of my job at the time was environmental management and environmental assessment, water management, regulatory stuff, establishment of protected areas, you know, the range of environmental responsibilities that a provincial-type government would have.
Among those projects was Giant Mine. I was the lead representative of the department for the final water licence hearing for Royal Oak, and we all know how that unfolded in the end. I was involved in the various machinations in dealing with Giant Mine until I retired from government in 2009.
So you have led a life fully immersed in, if not dominated by this mine in some shape or form.
It was only one part of my job but a big part of it at times. There are two memorable occasions. One was sitting in front of the water board at that time, explaining why we thought the security deposit should be increased – and subsequently finding that the board refused to do that. I think we had about $1 million in security at that time.
Just remind people of the estimated cost of the project right now?
$4.4 billion at this point.
After that water licence hearing, I was asked, “What do you think the real cost would be?” And I was criticized internally by the department for saying my estimate would be about $250 million. They thought that was far too much. Things have evolved since. The other striking memory I have is standing in my office, looking to the south and watching these ambulances go racing off toward Giant Mine. And that was the occasion when that underground blast took place during the strike and the miners were killed. So yeah, I have some memories about Giant Mine.
When we look at the annual report the oversight board has just produced, are there any big concerns?
From the environmental and engineering side, I think we’re fairly comfortable. We’ve got some recommendations, but they’re not big. The biggest concern I think the board has, and I certainly share it, is the sense that we’re losing opportunity, economic opportunity with the project – not so much the way it’s being managed, but the way the resources are being spent, and the relative lack of engagement by northern individuals, northern companies and northern organizations in capturing some of those potential benefits.
Because if $4.4 billion has been spent here, it would be nice to keep some of it. What sort of sense do we have of how much of that is staying in the North?
We’re still working on that kind of detail. The most recent estimate we have from our economist who’s on the board suggests that while the Giant Mine itself created less revenue, less wealth, overall, the the net benefit to the territory is greater than the four-point-whatever billion-dollar price tag this one will be.
The concern about the North not necessarily getting what it should get out of the economics of this, and also of the project team maybe not doing what they could to help maximize that figure – that’s been around for a long time. I’ve heard that, report after report after report. Is it changing?
I think we’re getting some traction with the two governments that are the co-proponents. The project team has is primarily focused on the engineering and the remediation itself. It’s Public Works and their main contract manager that actually flow the dollars through. We’ve been on this issue for some time, but we ourselves weren’t able to describe exactly what it was we’re looking for. It takes the mind of an economist to kind-of parse these things out and follow the money. What we knew, and still know, is that there are opportunities being missed by contractors, by individuals in the North.
Part of that is just accessibility to the projects, to the contracts. These contracts are large, in many cases. They require a great deal of insurance. Small companies in the North don’t have that capacity. Individuals may or may not want to work in a remediation project, so there’s that issue of human resource capacity in the North. And some of those who would like to work don’t have the training. So we’re slowly getting a handle on what the real gaps are, and what the real opportunities are, and how much money is slipping between our fingers – and the ways that we might be able to capture more of those opportunities.
What kinds of recommendation exist for ways to do this better?
We need to understand where the labour gaps are. We need to understand what the challenges for small companies are. And we need to start overcoming those challenges, get the proper training for folks who are interested in getting more training, so they can work at remediation sites or industry sites of any kind. Remove some of the barriers that small companies face, start building more corporate capacity in the North as well.
We’ve all heard about the 10-percent solution, where you get a joint venture and a northern company gets 10 percent of the benefits and the southern company that they’re joint-ventured with get 90 percent. We can do better than that. This is not a third-world country, and sometimes it feels like it. You know, there are genuine capacity challenges and constraints, but not going to get to where you want to go unless you make the effort.
How is the oversight board going to evaluate whether things start to shift on this?
We’re going to be more clear, I think, about our expectations, as the economic model is further developed by one of our directors,
Right, the oversight board itself is developing an economic model here. What does that mean?
It means, basically, let’s follow the money. Let’s find out how much is being spent, where it’s being spent, and identify those areas where northerners could maybe step in and capture some of those opportunities that are flowing south. Part of our frustration is that, in theory at least, we shouldn’t be doing this. We should be able to ask the project team: “Where are the numbers? How’s the money flowing? What do you see as your challenges?” And we didn’t get enough traction, so now we’re doing it ourselves.
What’s the reporting like that you’re getting back on this?
At one time, the numbers were just inconsistent. Categories were mixed and the detail was missing. We’ve been able to, through an agreement with the Government of Canada, get the real numbers and start working through those. And we’ll be able to produce the results of that analysis – not the details of it, but the results of it.
At the start, you said you’re broadly comfortable with the way things are going from an engineering and environmental point of view. What do you look at to get that level of comfort?
We look at all aspects of the remediation project. You’ve got to separate the arsenic trioxide dust from underground – that’s being temporarily frozen in place. That’s not part of the overall remediation. That’s one of the mandates of the Giant Mine Oversight Board, is to find a better solution, a permanent solution for that dust. The other aspects, primarily surface aspects and underground stabilization, are all areas that we look at.
We have people sitting on the various working groups, listening, providing advice, providing feedback to the board. We have expert consultants when we need them, if we don’t have the expertise on the board itself. We track just-about every aspect of the the surface and subsurface stabilization project and we work pretty closely with the project team in ensuring that we understand what they’re doing, and they understand that they need to be careful about foreclosing options when it comes to treating that dust underground – extracting it, treating and disposing of it. From the water side, the air side, the land remediation side, archaeological surveys – I mean, we track all of those activities.
Overall, we are not identifying any significant concerns at this point. Based on what we know, we also understand that things will change. I mean, every plan goes differently once you start to implement it. And so there will be delays, and there have been some minor ones, but nothing terribly significant at this point.
I just want to pick up on a detail or two from the report. There was a study, the Understanding Community Well-being Around Giant Mine study, scheduled to begin last spring. It didn’t proceed, according to the report, due to concerns expressed by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s chief and council. Are you able to elaborate on what happened there?
It was a bit of a surprise, I think, to all parties that we got so far down the road in designing that study and on the verge of starting to implement it – it was called a stress study, for those who are more familiar. The intervention by the leadership was a surprise. The letter was basically self-explanatory. They didn’t want the study to proceed. They didn’t explain in detail why, but that’s their call. The stress study was one of the recommendations of the environmental assessment panel and now there won’t be that stress study.
When you say a stress study, just spell that out for us. Is it simply a study of stress? What does that look at?
It was a study of stress experienced by the Yellowknives Dene and other residents of the region due to the Giant Mine, due to the operation of the mine, the abandonment of the mind, the current remediation project,. What kind of stress has that placed on the various communities and individuals in the region? Particularly the Indigenous people who used that land before there was a mine and suddenly were no longer able to use that land, which was important to them and remains important to them. So they experienced stress. Residents of Yellowknife who are non-Indigenous perhaps experienced less stress, but, you know, there’s still that 237,000 tonnes of arsenic dust stored underground. Is that stressful for people? The water that will be discharged from the mine site into Back Bay, is that creating a source of stress or concern?
So the idea of the stress study was to tease out as much as possible the implications of these stressors and basically tell the story. Now, that story won’t be told in the way that it had been anticipated. So the question that we have is: this was a requirement of the environmental assessment process. What’s the fallback plan? Is there one? Will the environment assessment panel just say, “You did your best?” Or do we wait? That’s not a GMOB responsibility but it’s part of the number of issues that we look at and try to provide some helpful recommendations or helpful observations.
If there were a catastrophic failure at Giant, the City of Yellowknife worries that we wouldn’t be able to use the water from Yellowknife Bay. So the city is trying to rebuild a pipeline out to the Yellowknife River. The cost of that project has increased from $34 million to $57 million. The city says the Giant project team should pay for that. What is the oversight board’s role in that?
We watch and listen. And if there’s an opportunity for us to provide some constructive advice or observations, we’ll do that. But the city tried that argument during the environmental assessment hearings, and that was not successful.
I think it was partly because it wasn’t seen to be a direct impact of the Giant Mine remediation project. Sure, there might be some catastrophic event, but the current situation is that the run-off or flow-through from Baker Creek is fairly low to begin with. It’s pumped and treated. The underground water is pumped and treated as well. And it’s very quickly diluted to background in Back Bay.
To give people a clear sense of geography here if they don’t know the site, Baker Creek is the creek that runs through the Giant Mine site and then empties into Back Bay?
Yeah. The watershed is upstream of Giant Mine and runs through the Giant Mine property. Right now, the water that is discharged from the tailings ponds is treated before it’s then pumped into Back Bay and the same for the underground water – also pumped and treated and discharged into Baker Creek, which then flows into Back Bay. The remediation project envisages a different water treatment plant, and it should reduce the contaminants to much lower levels. So, again, you know, it’s maybe a risk-benefit analysis. Is the pipeline truly necessary? Different opinions. Certainly, it needs to be rebuilt, but does it need to be rebuilt all the way to the Yellowknife River? That’s a subject of some discussion.
Part of the oversight board’s work is looking at a permanent solution for the arsenic trioxide dust that is stored underground. What work is going on right now to find a better plan, and how far along are we?
There are about eight different studies that the Giant Mine Oversight Board has collaborated – well, provided funding for. Studies that range from characterizing the arsenic dust because it’s not consistent in every stope, you know, every location…
And again, just to explain for people, there are a whole bunch of different scopes – chambers, essentially – underground. It’s not as though there’s one big pile of arsenic dust underground, there’s a lot of complexity to where this stuff actually is.
And the total amount, as you mentioned, is 237,000 tonnes. The visual representation of that total amount is about a cubic city block. If there was a small amount of dust, we wouldn’t have a problem. We could treat it and dispose of it safely. It wouldn’t be an issue. So we’re looking at various ways to describe what the qualities of that dust are, and then various potential ways of handling that dust to stabilize it, to make it non-toxic, including combining it with cement, turning it into glass, and turning it into a different compound, more sulphur-based than arsenic-based.
For those of us who are not chemists, turning it into glass seems an extraordinary potential solution.
If the glass, the vitrification process is proven viable – and you know, the results are promising – the dust would likely be extracted from the chambers underground, and there are lots of ways to move bulk materials. Grain is one, cement dust is another. We can get it from underground, I’m fairly confident. We can get, I think, all of it from underground if we use a combination of methods, and then have a treatment plant on the surface. And then we would decide – again, this is all hypothetical at this point – in the circumstances, where is the best place to put this glass?
Well, that was going to be my next question, because 237,000 tonnes-plus of glass that once was toxic arsenic trioxide dust… is it inert at that point? Is there still some latent toxicity? What do we do?
We’re looking at those details. That’s part of one of the studies. We’ve got some samples of this arsenic glass and university folks are looking at how leachable it is and under what circumstances. So it’s a work in progress.
And that is not a fanciful outcome, that is very possibly a solution that could end up being employed if it comes through that analysis?
Put it this way, it’s done elsewhere. This is not brand new. This is a process that is used by this particular company in other regions, other jurisdictions. Arsenic byproducts from mining are becoming more of a problem because the good ore is being exhausted, and people are turning to more arsenic-rich ores. And so the problem is not just unique to Giant Mine and couple of other mines, it’s becoming a growing issue. So there’s a good incentive to develop a process to treat this arsenic waste, whether it’s Giant arsenic waste, or Chilean arsenic waste, or Quebec arsenic waste, or South African.
Of the options you’re looking at, is that the one that’s showing the most promise right now or are there others that are up there as well?
At this point it’s premature, right? There are others that are looking less promising but, you know, maybe we’ll find a way around the challenges. At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic that there might be a way to do this. Getting back to what we do with the product, it depends on how leachable it is. If it is leachable under only certain circumstances, then you don’t put it back in those circumstances. It may be that it’ll be so resistant to leaching that you could actually put it on the surface in an enclosed area, keep it dry, and monitor it. I mean, arsenic was used in ceramics. This is not a brand-new application, it’s just a different twist on something that was done in the past. I’m fairly optimistic that is not going to take 100 years to solve this problem. I think we can find a solution within the next 10 years that would then go through the regulatory process, and the scrutiny, and public acceptance and all that stuff. But finding a technical solution, I think, is certainly within reach.
In the time that we have left, I just want to quickly touch on the community survey that the Giant Mine Oversight Board carried out. One in five people taking that survey thought the oversight board was the one doing the work here. That suggests a lot of public confusion, still, about who’s in charge, doesn’t it?
I don’t know if it’s confusion or apathy. Frankly, I get a little… the word isn’t cynical, so much as distant when it comes to assessing the results of public surveys like that. Often, you get people who are interested in the subject inputting in the survey, and the people who know little or care little about the project don’t. So you don’t really get a full understanding of what the community sense is, you know? You’ve got the results of the survey. Yeah, sure. There are a number of people who still don’t understand how the remediation project is managed.
Is that a concern? In listening to you answer that question, it almost feels as though, frankly, you’re not that worried about that because the people who need to know, know.
I think that’s part of it. I mean, I guess what I would like to get out to the broader public are the implications of the remediation project longer-term. Are people going to be able to use that site freely? What’s going to happen to the boat launch short-term, long-term? What are the impacts that the remediation project as currently envisioned will have on the public? And if the public isn’t aware of that, then things may happen that they’ll be upset about later.
Well then look, let’s run through those questions and do some answers very quickly. First of all, will people ever be able to use the site again in the medium term?
Parts of it, not all of it. There will be parts of it that are not remediated that will still be accessible. There will be parts that are remediated and basically returned to a residential level of safety. There will be parts that are fenced off, where the public will have no access whatsoever. So it’ll depend. Those diagrams are are on our website and on the project team’s website, so people can look. The boat launch: there are going to be some changes. For some time, it’s going to be a whole lot less accessible. There will still be a boat launch but it’s not going to be the easy flow that the current one offers. People expecting to go down to the boat launch in five years and launch their boat may be surprised, and perhaps frustrated, at the situation that they encounter. It’s like any public issue. The better aware the public is, hopefully the better the decisions will be. But if people don’t weigh in, then folks will go about their business.
The last point that you raised back then was that people should be aware of the long-term implications to the public here. What might those implications be?
Well, the use of the site. Once the surface remediation is complete, do people expect that they will be able to just go back on the site, hunt, fish, gather berries? Do they understand the nature of that site? It’s not going to be a park. It’s not going to be a particularly pleasant place to be. It might be relatively safe for short-term excursions but, you know, I don’t think that many people will want to be camping out there. They might think that they can.
So in other words, a remediation is not a clean-up.
It is not restoring the site to its previous 1930 condition. That is for sure. I mean, people need to be aware that this will still be an industrial site of sorts.
There is a public meeting about all of this coming up.
It’s on June 1 at the Explorer Hotel, starting at 7pm. This is not the project team presenting, this is the Giant Mine Oversight Board. There will be representatives of the project team there, but it’s a Giant Mine Oversight Board event.
The audio broadcast associated with this transcript appears through a paid partnership between Cabin Radio and the Giant Mine Oversight Board. The oversight board had no editorial input regarding the questions asked or the interview’s format.