Jul 25, 2012
A First Nations community in Yellowknife neighbors a mine that stores the world’s largest stockpile
Essay: Deep time stretches our imaginations, not just our engineering prowess
One of the most human and humble things we do is to reach across generations. Conversations about deep time are taking place in community centers and kitchens across the globe, in places like Yellowknife, home to a First Nations community of Dene. Though Yellowknife’s Giant Mine has been closed for nearly a decade, it will pose a human health hazard for such a long period of time we might as well think of it as forever. The site, near the Arctic Circle, houses the world’s largest stockpile of arsenic trioxide tailings. Contaminants like these can persist in watersheds and food webs for longer than any 10,000-year clock will ever chime, and longer than burial structures are designed to safeguard chemical and nuclear waste. Keeping these sites safe for hundreds of thousands of years requires unprecedented feats of engineering – and of human imagination.
A First Nations community in Yellowknife neighbors a mine that stores the world’s largest stockpile of arsenic trioxide tailings.
By Rebecca Altman
For Environmental Health News
July 25, 2012
One of the most human and humble things we do is to reach across generations. Our place in time and our connections to distant generations are hard to sense, even when in plain sight. Take, for example, a ring, like my ancestors’ wedding rings that my mom inherited and has dutifully kept. Rings are an ancient symbol, a circle of timelessness, eternity and continuity. And if fashioned from gold, that is evidence of deep, geological time, for gold is remnant stardust, buried when the Earth was formed. Yet seeing ourselves in relationship to time and generations can stretch our imagination to its far limits.
Though the Giant Mine has been closed for nearly a decade, it will pose a human health hazard for such a long period of time we might as well think of it as forever. Last fall, Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, was invited to a community of Dene, a First Nations group, neighboring an abandoned gold mine in Canada’s Yukon. Though the Giant Mine has been closed for nearly a decade, it will pose a human health hazard for such a long period of time we might as well think of it as forever. The site, near the Arctic Circle, houses the world’s largest stockpile of arsenic trioxide tailings. Arsenic trioxide must remain sequestered and should never be disturbed. Though it exists in nature, in no place does it exist in this concentration, in such a form that if not contained could readily spread through ground water or be scattered to the wind.
Engineers considered freezing the arsenic trioxide. Their plan to maintain the frozen tailings looked ahead a quarter of a century. The community wanted to know, what then? What of generations born beyond that? The heart of the matter: How do we safeguard harmful substances forever? “This is a unique problem in all of human history,” Raffensperger later wrote. It is one of the most important challenges we must face as a society.
The Yellowknife Dene and a group called Alternatives North looked to how other Yukon communities reconcile life among the layered legacies of the 20th century. It was here, too, that the raw materials were mined for the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientists tell us that nuclear waste, depending on its type, poses a threat to human health for at least 10,000 years, sometimes 100,000 years or more. Plutonium waste, for example, must be secured for 10,000 generations, or about 250,000 years. Keeping nuclear waste safe requires unprecedented feats of engineering and technology, and of human imagination. In Finland, construction has begun on a permanent burial facility for nuclear waste that must remain intact longer than anything human hands have created.
Scientists tell us that nuclear waste, depending on its type, poses a threat to human health for at least 10,000 years, sometimes 100,000 years or more.And then we must devise a way to tell our decedents: Danger – Do not disturb what lies beneath. Communicating across multiple millennia is a task that rivals the formidable engineering of the storage site, and linguists, historians and anthropologists have been deliberating about it since at least the 1990s. What will the world look like in 1,000 years, let alone 100,000, given the changes that have occurred over the previous millennia?
Visionaries, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, are building a series of clocks that will keep time for 10,000 years – a costly feat of engineering that is intended to inspire us toward long-term thinking. But engineers and scientists aren’t the only ones considering life in deep time. Conversations about deep time are taking place in community centers and kitchens across the globe, in places like Yellowknife, where contaminants could persist in watersheds and food webs for longer than any 10,000-year clock will chime, and longer than these deep burial structures are designed to safeguard nuclear waste.
Carolyn Raffensperger hopes her ‘perpetual care’ principles will reframe conversations about nuclear waste sites.
And so Raffensperger began drafting the principles of “perpetual care” to assist the Yellowknife Dene, and communities everywhere, to push regulators and decision-makers to extend the period of concern when caring for and healing hurt places. Released earlier this year, the Principles have already begun to reframe important conversations about long-term care of sites facing millennial problems with legacy pollutants. What responsibilities do we bear to our decedents? How should their rights influence how we organize ourselves and our economy, and what endeavors we as a society pursue? One idea that has already gained traction is the installation of legal guardians to stand for future generations, an idea Raffensperger, indigenous leaders and other visionaries have written about extensively.
What responsibilities do we bear to our decedents? How should their rights influence how we organize ourselves and our economy, and what endeavors we as a society pursue?Raffensperger returned from Yellowknife changed, charged, determined to inspire others to think about their responsibilities to future generations, particularly those living millennia from now. She invited each of us to become “beloved ancestors” even as we pursue environmental justice within this generation.
Along the way, she also assembled a team of allies to convene a Women’s Congress for the Rights of Future generations in Moab, Utah, this September. This gathering, we hope, will amplify what is already an emerging movement that seeks sanctuary for those to come, and that seeks to establish the rights of future generations.These offerings, including a Declaration of the Rights of Future Generations, will be carried into the world like seeds on the wind, where we hope they might inspire or intermingle with other dialogues about our relationship to future generations, and be adapted and amended and then cast into the world, again and again.
Long shuttered, the Giant Mine site holds toxic waste that should never be disturbed.
When Raffensperger visited Yellowknife, she toured the Giant Mine and its many abandoned buildings. She saw where the arsenic trioxide is stored.
Before leaving, she tossed into one of its open pits a gold ring she had brought from home. As she told me, harm happened in the process of cleaving – arsenic from gold, people from land, today’s generations from those to come. So she returned the gold to reunite what has been cleft. This was an alternate form of inheritance, symbolizing the alternate legacy she hopes to leave. And there the ring will sit, perhaps for all time.
Rebecca Altman is a sociologist, a lecturer at Tufts University and a columnist at OdeWire.com. She serves on the board of directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network, at http://www.sehn.org. A version of this essay was originally posted at http://www.OdeWire.com.