Mining

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In 1992, nine miners were killed in Yellowknife by a deliberately set explosive device, tying it for the fifth worst mass murder ever to occur in Canada. That may not seem like much to my American friends but we are, for the most part, a peaceful nation. For the City of Yellowknife, the event was shattering; it took years for many in the community to find some closure. Some, of course, will never get over it.

The blast came towards the end of a long and bitter strike that had divided the community for months. The striking miners fought – physically in some cases – with the replacement workers brought in to do their jobs. It didn’t help that a few of the strike-breakers were former union members. The mine itself had been running for decades and brought a lot of prosperity to the city and the country. But now it was on its last legs, run by an unscrupulous chief executive determined to wring the last dollar out the gold seam no matter what the cost.

The mine is now long closed but it still haunts the minds of Yellowknifers and the northern mining industry. Besides the labour strife, Giant has left behind a legacy of pollution more or less unrivalled in Canada. One of the by-products of gold mining is often large quantities of water soluble arsenic compounds. There is enough arsenic at the Giant Mine site to kill every rat in the world several times over. The Federal government – the corporation is long gone and in those days there were no reclamation security deposits required as is the case today – has spent close to a billion dollars on a plan to bury the arsenic back where it came from and then freeze it permanently (we hope) using self-sustaining heat pumps.

There has been a lot of community involvement in the clean-up plan and most – though not all – people think the remediated site will be safe enough. If it isn’t, it is hoped that leakage into Great Slave Lake will not exceed dangerous levels. As I say, most of us feel the project will work.

However, the history of Giant Mine is often raised as a scare tactic – or at least a stern lesson – on the dangers of all mining. In many parts of the north, mining projects are stalled or made excessively expensive by the mere mention of Giant’s legacy. The fact that times have changed and regulations are tougher is a hard sell in the face of a mountain of poison.

Yet mining continues to be a key part of the northern economy and probably will be for decades to come. And for those who see it as the same as that other great extractive industry – oil and gas – answer me this: what exactly do you thing solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and public transit networks are made of? Done right, mining has less of an impact on the ecosystem than any form of farming or forestry.

As I’ve said before I’m a rational environmentalist and responsible mining is part of my vision of a sustainable future.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

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Hypothermia

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The first forecast of snow flurries has arrived in Ottawa. We may duck it, the weatherman wasn’t certain, but regardless, it’s not far off.

I’m inspired to talk about cold. Cold as in bone numbing, breathtaking, mind dimming cold. In August.

Many years ago I agreed to hike through Pangnirtung Pass with my then wife. This was not the fulfillment of some dream of mine. There was, after all, hiking involved, carrying an 80 lb pack. For five or six days in an area that occasionally had polar bears in it. Still, love is a strange thing. It persuades you to do what the other wants (okay to be fair she came with me to the World Science Fiction convention in Boston — but I think she got the better of the deal).

I trained for months, walking on an inclined treadmill with a pack on your back — because the five days certainly couldn’t be enough penance for my sins. We even tried out some of the freeze dried meals that would be our diet in the Pass.

Yum.

What we weren’t really prepared for was the cold. We did go to the short lecture on the dangers of hypothermia that hiking through the pass — in August — presented. Almost no one else of the thirty or so people who were in the park that week joined us.

The risk wasn’t the air temperature. It was a balmy 9C the whole time we were there and only dropped a couple of degrees during the twilight they called night. No the problem was twofold. First, you tended to sweat a lot — because 80 pound packs. That could lead to considerable loss of body heat. On top of that you frequently had to wade through knee deep or even crotch deep glacial streams. This was water that a few minutes before had been ice. As soon as you put your foot in it you lost all sensation in the submerged part. It was like walking on stilts, carrying a pack.

On the second night, I started shivering. My thoughts became muddled. I crawled into my sleeping bag and felt even colder. We lit candles in the tent to try to warm things up. No good. My wife had to make a calculation. They told us that the best way to help someone with hypothermia was to share body heat. The problem was: if you were too cold, it wouldn’t save your partner but kill you. She was cold too, but how cold?

I was no use; my thinking was unclear. But I was ever so grateful when she slid in beside me, her warm skin against my cold. She told me later that she decided to take the risk because she didn’t want to finish the hike alone. How romantic.

But that’s ten minutes.