Report says arsenic threat warrants action
Arsenic continues to pollute the air in the NWT without regulatory legislation

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (May 07/97) - Atmospheric releases of arsenic from gold mining in Yellowknife warrant the highest priority for federal action, says a task force for Environment Canada.

For Yellowknifers, the health risks associated with arsenic levels are considered high in comparison with those linked with other environmental contaminants, says the report, released May 1.

"There is no current legislative mechanism in place like the NWT Waters Act to regulate it," said Laura Johnston, manager of the NWT environmental protection division.

The report was commissioned as a response to the lack of regulatory control over the arsenic released to the air. MacDonald Environmental Services Ltd. prepared the report for the environmental protection branch of Environment Canada.

The report's findings are clear on the origin of the problem.

The gold roaster at Giant mine is the only artificial source of arsenic releases in the NWT, and the only one still in operation in Canada. The only other gold roaster in the country is located at Golden Bear Mine in British Columbia, but it hasn't been in operation since 1994.

The report also revealed that atmospheric arsenic releases from Giant Mine have not been reduced since 1978 when the mine voluntarily reduced the emissions from 7,300 kilograms a day -- a level maintained since the 1950s -- to 30 kilograms per day.

The result is Yellowknife's air contains about nine to 13 times the level of arsenic as that found in a survey of 11 Canadian cities. The report said that kind of exposure, over a lifetime, could produce one extra cancer death.

The report concluded that replacing the current ore-processing technology that produces the arsenic would cost more than Giant Mine's owners are willing to invest and would also outweigh the health benefits.

However, the costs of available emission-treatment technology could be "marginal" and "would probably not place undue financial pressure on Giant Mine."

In fact, said the report, treatment technology would cost only nine per cent of the current net cash flow from the mine to it's owner, Royal Oak Mines.

But Royal Oak is under no legal obligation to install any treatment equipment.

Johnston said that there is no nation-wide legislation in place partly because of the make-up of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

"Any regulation we put in place has national implications," she said. "We want to make sure any steps we take in the NWT are well thought out for the rest of Canada."

Instead, the environmental protection division has opened the door to discussion on the matter and hopes to involve other levels of government in the legislative process.

"There could be other levels of government that could regulate it, but no one has done it so far," said Johnston.