Truth of the tailings
Feds agree to clean up a radioactive legacy in the Sahtu
NNSL (Oct 25/99) - The federal government has recently signed a commitment with the Deline Dene Band to begin the clean up of an estimated 1.7- million tonnes of radioactive mine tailings in Port Radium.
The abandoned uranium mine site is located on the shore of Great Bear Lake -- the largest freshwater lake within the boundaries of Canada.
The clean-up negotiations will run concurrently with the Deline band's self-government negotiations, according to Chief Leroy Andre.
"What we've decided to do is negotiate the cleanup with our self-government negotiations," Andre said. "We, as a community, decided that's what's best."
He said the people are only seeking the truth about the contamination -- a truth Andre says was kept from his people since the mine was opened in 1930.
"It's a scary issue, when a lot of your people died of cancer and the government has no answers," he said. "For a number of years they were telling us there was no harm to our people."
"We've forced them into giving us answers -- the last thing we want to do is take it to court," Andre said.
While compensation is one of the negotiation points, Andre said the main thing is just to get the mine site cleaned up.
"Our priority is the health of the people, the animals and the environment," he said."Just get the place cleaned up and educate the people."
The 31-year-old chief says the cause of cancer in his community might be difficult to prove, as there are many factors to consider.
"My grampa died of it, but you can't say for sure the mine caused it," he said. "A lot of it could be from smoking; there are a lot of cancer-causing agents -- not just uranium."
DIAND negotiators Kevin Flood and Isabelle Proulx were in Deline last week to sign the commitment with the Deline band.
Proulx said the government is very pleased the way things are going.
"We are talking right now with Deline on how we want to do this," Proulx said.
She said the process began last June, when a delegation from Deline went to Ottawa to speak to Health Minister Allan Rock, then DIAND minister Jane Stewart, Ralph Goodale of Natural Resources Canada and Western Arctic MP, Ethel Blondin-Andrew.
"There was a commitment made by the minister (Stewart), to a three-phase approach to address this issue together," she said. "There will be studies done on the environment and health and that we would hire a joint fact-finder to look at what happened here."
"It's a bit early in the process, but if I can speak for Canada, we are very happy that this is going forward," Proulx said.
Eldorado mine began as a radium mine in the early 1930s. Radium was used in the treatment of cancer and sold for $10,000 a gram.
The Eldorado mine extracted radium from pitchblende and discarded the uranium, a byproduct of the extraction process, into Cameron Bay.
When uranium was needed for the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, the discarded uranium was scooped from the bay, pulverized and shipped south.
The Manhattan Project was the code name for the Allies' construction of the first atomic bomb.
The people of Great Bear Lake new nothing about the Manhattan Project or the dangers of radiation.
Huey Ferdinand lived in Port Radium. His father worked for Eldorado, as did he and his brothers. His father was the first Dene mine worker to die of cancer. His brothers, Dolphus and Pierre, also died of cancer.
Credited with the discovery of the mine, Charlie and Gilbert Labine were guided to the site by Ferdinand's father.
"My dad and his friend took them down there in 1930," Ferdinand said.
The whole time they lived at Port Radium, Ferdinand said they were never warned about the dangers of radiation.
"They never told us nothing -- even my dad, he didn't know what that stuff was," he said. "About five or six years ago, that's when I found out."
They worked long days for Eldorado, without any protective clothing or breathing apparatus, he said.
"They didn't give us nothing; just glasses and gloves," Ferdinand said.
He said the people made tea and drank the water from the bay, which held the uranium tailings.
"Every time they'd dredge the rocks they'd give us the fish that fell from the scoop, but it smelled bad, so we gave it to the dogs," he said.
Ferdinand said local band members made a recent trip across the lake with a Geiger counter to measure background radiation which revealed just how serious the problem is.
"Two summers ago, they took a machine over there to measure the radiation," he recalled. "The needle went over ... it busted because the radiation was so strong."
The local kids of Port Radium had a sandbox made from the fine uranium tailings, as no sand was available, he said. They also used to play around the machinery at the mine.
"We used to play in there, around the crusher," he said. "There was these broken bags of some chemical -- a yellow powder. It would blow all over and onto the ice. In the spring you could see it floating on the water."
The workers never knew the seriousness of pollution back then and it was cheaper to dump the waste material in the lake than take it out on a barge, he said.
"When they cleaned the barge, they'd just sweep it into the lake," he said. "They'd throw all kinds of garbage into the lake. There's lots of barrels in the water, too."
"Nobody goes there anymore, but I usually go every summer," Ferdinand said. "I'm not afraid to eat the fish and the caribou."
Paul Baton worked at the mine for five years. He said the cleanup/containment should have happened a long time ago.
"It should have been done in the first place," Baton said. "They should have dug a hole in the bush and buried it real good."
Baton worked on the barge, toting the bags of ore on and off the barge.
"I worked on the boat going back and forth," he recalled.
"We'd load the barge with these little bags," he explained, his hands about a foot apart. "But they were heavy -- about 120 pounds."
The men worked 12 hour days, Baton recalled.
"We'd get up and eat at six and work at seven," he remembered. "They'd say, 'Boys you gonna have a drink you only get 10 minutes, if you take 15, you're fired.'"
"They only paid us three dollars a day," he added.
"All day lifting those bags ... our arms were just red here, boy," he said, rubbing his forearms.
Although the government knew about the harmful effects of radiation, Baton said they were never warned of a possible danger.
"Nobody told us," Baton said.
"People drink the water and eat the fish," he said. "It made it really bad for the people."
"We used to go down into the mine, to find out how to work down there," he remembered. "There was one guy who was very friendly. He was sick and they were gonna lay him off. He said, 'Paul, that uranium is bad stuff and the government is gonna make a bomb with it.'"
"But before that we never knew anything. We never knew he would make a bomb with it."
Baton said in the early days, the community was healthy. When the white people came North, the Dene started to get sick.
"Before, nobody used to get sick and then in the '40s, we started getting TB," he recalled. "They got sick, but some got better. When the doctor said 'cancer,' we never heard that before."
"When he said, 'cancer,' everyone died and nobody ever got better."