Meet the Environmental Management Team keeping Canada Safe From 237,000 Tonnes of Arsenic

Arsenic has a reputation as one of the deadliest chemicals on earth. The poison is famous for its use in countless high profile murders and suicides. Many believe Hitler used Arsenic to commit suicide as the Soviet troops closed in on the centre of Berlin. So, it might come as a shock to you if you hear that Canada has hundreds of thousands of tonnes of arsenic buried underground one of their remote northern cities. The North American nation is having a severe problem disposing of large amounts of arsenic in some of its northern mining regions.

Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, has massive amounts of arsenic stored in chambers below the city and surrounding areas. Yellowknife only plays home to around 20,000 residents, but the city also serves as a hub for surrounding regions and industries. The name of the town lends itself from a local tribe that once dominated the region. The area is very popular with mining companies – large amounts of gold appeared in the region in the early 20th Century, which caused a mini gold rush. In the 1990s, diamond mining companies moved into the area because of newfound jewels.

While local mine workers enjoyed the profits of the industry, many didn’t realise the problems arsenic might create for the region at a later date. As you can probably tell, this poses serious environmental risks for the surrounding areas and the world as a whole. Some environmental groups have expressed concern about the arsenic chambers and the current plans to contain it. In this article, we’ll explore this story in more depth to provide context to the broad issue of arsenic pollution and its potential perils.


Wait, How Much Arsenic?

You may not believe it, but 237,000 tonnes is the correct figure. This outrageous amount of poison is kept in chambers below the mining site. Considering that arsenic typically comes in the form of dust, the sheer amount of toxin stored in these chambers is genuinely remarkable. In fact, the amount of arsenic stored in the chambers below Yellowknife is enough to kill the entire population on earth. As you may be able to tell, this level of toxicity is something that cannot be ignored. The chambers were never a permanent solution – arsenic doesn’t just go away without any interference. While Canadian officials managed to stall for decades, it appears that time is up.

Erosion and deterioration pose severe issues for local officials. If the chambers are to leak, the water supply in the area could be completely ruined. With so much arsenic sitting in the chamber, it’s imperative that authorities find a way to reduce the chances of complications. With heritage sites and beautiful landscapes spread throughout the neighbouring regions, it’s essential to avoid a catastrophe.


Where Did all That Arsenic Come From?

While most people think of arsenic as the result of a lab experiment, the element arises from certain fossil fuels or industrial activities. In the case of Canada, the arsenic under Yellowknife is the result of years of mining. The poison is a common byproduct of certain mining activities – many countries don’t control the levels of arsenic emitted from their mines or fossil fuel usage. This causes considerable problems further down the line, especially when mine sites close and there is no money to clean up the chemicals surrounding the sites.

Yellowknife’s arsenic deposit is a result of the nearby Giant Mine – a local gold mine that traces its origins to the 1940s. After the arsenic-related death of a local child in the 1950s, the mining site decided to begin collecting the arsenic in an underground chamber to help prevent it entering the environment. While this may have been well-intentioned  at the beginning, it’s caused a significant problem for local officials.

There doesn’t appear to be any way to remove the waste safely, and it could potentially end up polluting local water supplies or seeping into the environment. While officials were hoping a deep freeze would eventually keep the arsenic in place, rising temperatures prevented this from happening.

At some stages, the amount of arsenic produced by the mine far exceeded 22,000 pounds per day. This unbelievable amount of toxin was entering the neighbouring regions without any restriction until the regulations were put in place in the 1950s. At present, Yellowknife continues to sit on this insurmountable amount of arsenic.

So, why does arsenic appear in such large quantities at mining sites? The poison isn’t something you would often associate with mining or natural resources. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can arise in many different ways. Regarding mining, arsenic tends to form during gold and copper mining operations. This is because arsenic releases from the oxidation or erosion of sulphide minerals. When mining companies are looking for gold or copper, they typically have to search through sulphide minerals to find the valuable metals.

Arsenic is then released into the environment, often in vast quantities. While this is alarming to those not familiar with mining and its byproducts, the issue is not exclusive to Yellowknife, Canada. There are large arsenic deposit issues all around the world – from Canada to Korea. Governments and environmental agencies have a lot to contend with if they want to promote mining, while also ensuring that there isn’t overexposure to toxins.


Potential Environmental Impact

If you’re environmentally conscious, you’re probably wondering how this arsenic deposit can impact the surrounding regions. The reality is that arsenic is extremely dangerous and can often leak into local environments. Arsenic can dissolve in water, which means it can pollute domestic water supplies and enter waterways with ease. If the arsenic at Yellowknife were able to enter the local water supply, it could prove disastrous for the local community. While arsenic can cause death, exposure to smaller amounts can also harm reproductivity and other components of the human body.

It’s easy to focus on the drawbacks for humans, but overexposure to arsenic puts the environment as a whole at risk if there is a widescale leak. If arsenic leaks into local waterways or water supplies, fish stocks and other water animals may be harmed significantly. If the concentration is not enough to kill the domestic animals, it can still cause severe damage to their ability to reproduce.

Foliage can also suffer from the impacts of arsenic. While some plants in specific regions have built up a tolerance to arsenic, large quantities of the poison can destroy plant metabolism and hamper growth. It’s important to understand the vast consequences that may occur if this massive amount of arsenic is allowed to enter the environment.


The People Preventing Catastrophe

With such a significant problem at play, it’s often hard to find a consensus on how to remedy the issue. The Canadian government is working hard to find a way to prevent a largescale catastrophe in the region. Government environmental management teams recognise that the chambers are not a permanent solution. As mentioned previously, once they begin leaking, it could spell an end for the local water supply.

Instead, there are plans to freeze the arsenic underground to prevent it from leaking into the surrounding environment. While this might sound like a good idea at face value, it requires constant maintenance to keep the poison frozen. Considering the region surrounding the arsenic is not cold enough to maintain the freezing temperatures year round, coolant will need to continually generate freezing temperatures for the chambers. This costs money, but it appears to be the cheapest option. Estimates peg the cost of the freeze at around $1b – it will also cost around $2m per year to maintain the site and keep it frozen.

While some environmental agencies contend there are much better solutions, freezing the arsenic seems to be the cheapest and most efficient option. Other options including withdrawing the arsenic, reducing its harm, and moving it to another location – are all too expensive, according to local officials. Unfortunately, this attitude is often present in modern discussions about proper waste management. Mining companies are happy to emit harmful toxins and chemicals into the environment, but they don’t help pay to return the area to its former state. This responsibility often falls onto taxpayers and local environmental officials who make do with what they can.

Environmentalists fear this is a short term solution that may result in more extensiveproblems in the future. For example, considering the arsenic will need constant freezing inputs, if a future government or population loses interest in preventing the catastrophe, the arsenic could cause severe problems for the environment. Many environmentalists believe that Canada should find a more permanent solution to the problem. Regardless, it’s essential to get the ball rolling. With every passing day, the chambers come closer to a massive leak – it’s critical to avoid any irreversible damage to the local environment, and freezing the arsenic looks to be the only option. Yellowknife serves as a stark reminder of industrial irresponsibility.