Giant Mine and the underground parliament

Hi readers: As the final reflection post for the MOOC on Scientific Humanities convened by Bruno Latour, I composed this short report on a scientific or technical controversy/debate. It’s a bit late, so I don’t think BL himself will comment, but I hope some readers enjoy it…

At the abandoned Giant Mine in Yellowknife, a controversy I’ve been tracing for parts of this course, a kind of toxic parliament has convened below the surface of the earth. The participants are metaphorically but also sometimes literally drawn underground by arsenic: specifically, [the 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide][1] buried in subterranean chambers there, the byproduct of over half a century of gold mining and smelting. This massive toxic presence has sparked controversy over who is responsible for it and how to ensure it does not escape its interment and contaminate the environment. As a historical geographer, I have been [working with a historian and local community members][2] to both document and intervene in this controversy—in effect, attempting to both shape and join the underground parliament gathering to govern this site. The stakes for this institution are high: arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic to life forever, so creating durable yet flexible technological and governance interventions is critical.
The origins of this parliament are, of course, both political and socio-technical. Arsenic came to be stored underground after [attempts to engineer a solution to air pollution problems from gold processing at Giant Mine][3] led to the problem of the persistent materiality of arsenic, now in deadly trioxide dust form. These decisions were made (and contested) by experts such as mining engineers; the public and its representatives had little direct say in the matter of underground storage. The issue entered the public realm, however, when the federal government inherited the mine site and its toxic basement from the bankrupt mining company in 1999. Again, [plans for the containment or disposal of the arsenic][4] were mooted by scientific experts, with the public largely contained to the sidelines (although, somewhat confusingly, the experts and the regulators were employees of a government agency). The engineering solution was to freeze the arsenic underground, to be maintained in its frozen (therefore inert and immobile), through the use of thermosyphon technology (discussed in Module 3).
As so often in politics, the first bricks of this new parliament were the ones hurled by protestors. In this case, in 2008 the city government (in response to public concerns) and the local aboriginal First Nation triggered a public review of the project by the territorial government (recall that the agency proposing the solution is a federal one). The resulting [environmental review process][5] lasted several years, between scoping, reporting, and public hearings. Particularly during the 2012 public hearings, intense debates occurred surrounding the technical feasibility of the freezing plan, the feasibility and cost of alternatives (such as exhuming and reprocessing the arsenic), and the regulatory oversight of the project. At public meetings, [citizens expressed their anxiety and concern][6] about the proposed freezing and water treatment processes—as well as their doubt and suspicion of the expert reports prepared to justify them. As one noted, “I ain’t a scientist and I ain’t an engineer, I’m just a common citizen that lives in the community and is faced with the worry of what might happen.” He also lacked faith in public authorities to oversee the work properly: “It’s a constant reminder to me of the government’s lax attitudes toward industrial development in the North. So, when they say they’re going to clean something up, I want to believe them. But I have difficultly believing them.”
So here we have all the elements of a scientific humanities controversy: expert-driven technical processes, questions of public (and civic) authority, uncertainty about the outcomes of socio-technical interventions, and an overriding, if troubling, reminder of the deep entanglement of nature and society in the Anthropocene (as well as an example of the uncanny ability of waste, in its persistent materiality, to trace such associations). Yet, through the interventions of concerned citizens, activists, and local residents, we can see halting efforts towards disrupting the exclusive, anti-politics of technical decision-making and opening opportunities for ‘non-experts’ to intervene in (potentially) meaningful ways in the Giant controversy. For instance, one of the key recommendations advanced by citizen-activists during the public hearings was for the establishment of an empowered [independent oversight body][7] to provide ongoing feedback and governance of parts of the project (especially given the situation where the project proponent, the federal government, is also the regulator). Although the environmental assessment agency endorsed this recommendation in its [decision][8] last year, not surprisingly the project proponent has resisted establishing such a body with anything more than a consultative role.
Secondly, and here’s where our latest work on this issue comes in, local activists and First Nations have raised [critical questions around the (very) long-term governance][9] of this project, which proposes a solution “in perpetuity” to the question of arsenic management. Such questions were poorly addressed, indeed virtually ignored, in the technical planning process. Working with these citizen groups, we are exploring the issue of [how to communicate toxic hazards (and their containment) to future generations][10]—not unlike the problem created by nuclear waste storage, for instance. We believe that any solution to this problem is unlikely to be found simply in the domain of experts, but rather in a literal *parlement* where people, things and ideas (like “toxicity”) can be represented and given voice. The goal, then, is to convene a discussion where the actors include not only those ‘present’ (literally, being there now), but also those in the future whose presence we may struggle to conceive, but whose interests are no less at stake than our own.



— Abandoned Mines

John Sandlos Receives Research Award

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Environmental history in NZ: seven reasons why it’s important

Why should we study New Zealand’s environmental history? and how is it different from “conventional” history? These are the questions that Paul Star asks in his essay entitled Environmental history and New Zealand history, first written in 2008, but recently republished on Environment and Nature in New Zealand. Star offers seven compelling reasons why it […]

— envirohistory NZ

Beaver for Lent

Today’s the last day of Lent, which got me thinking about beaver. That might not sound like an obvious connection but they are in fact related. During the Middle Ages, fasting throughout Lent was common, which meant that meat from hoofed animals (cows, sheep, etc) and birds was forbidden. So fish stepped up as the standard Lenten fare. For the most part, this fish probably came in salted or pickled forms and was not particularly tasty. Even though most people these days think the restriction is about eating meat, the dietary restriction wasn’t about mammals & birds versus fish, but about land versus water. Thus, other animals that spent their time in the water qualified as aquatic and could be eaten at Lent.

This was the case for beaver. Beaver was classified as an aquatic animal in cooking manuals, such as John Russell’s Boke of Nurture from c.1460 which starts the section “Carving of fish” with the recommendation to serve beaver tail as the meat in pea soup or frumenty (a kind of cracked wheat porridge) (line 547). A 1650 version of De Alimentorum Facultatibus (On Foodstuffs) likewise starts its chapter ‘De Animalibus amphibiis’ (‘The amphibian animals’) with beaver, followed by otter and frog.

When Gerald of Wales described beavers in Wales, he remarked that beaver was eaten as fish in Germany and Scandinavia:

The beavers have broad, short tails, thick, like the palm of a hand, which they use as a rudder in swimming; and although the rest of their body is hairy, this part, like that of seals, is without hair, and smooth; upon which account, in Germany and the arctic regions, where beavers abound, great and religious persons, in times of fasting, eat the tails of this fish-like animal, as having both the taste and colour of fish. (Itinerary through Wales, Chapter 3)

The beaver's tail shown as a fish tail in this illustration from Platearius, Livre des simples médecines, c. 1480. Paris, BnF, Français 12322, folio 188.

The beaver’s tail shown as a fish tail in this illustration from Platearius, Livre des simples médecines, c. 1480. Paris, BnF, Français 12322, folio 188.

The beaver tail was sometimes depicted in a very fish-like manner in medieval and early modern drawings, such as this image in a medicinal tract from the late 15th century. If you have seen a beaver tail, you can see the resemblance. I noted that when I saw a real tail at the Jamtli museum. The tail is scaly, very much like fish scales, and the meat inside is said to be more like fish than red meat.

Beaver tail on exhibit in Jamtli museum, Sweden. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Beaver tail on exhibit in Jamtli museum, Sweden. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

The beaver isn’t the only mammal that can be eaten during the fasting season of Lent: cetaceans like whales and dolphins qualify, as do rodents mammals who spend a lot of time in the water like otter. After the settlement of the New World, the capybara which is native to South America was added to the list of acceptable Lenten ‘aquatic’ foods in 1784 (see Moreira et al., p. 307 for the interesting capybara case).

Even though the beaver tail was most like a fish, it is possible that all the beaver meat was eaten under the ‘aquatic’ exemption just like capybara which doesn’t have the fish-like tail. In a 1756 Swedish treatise by Nils Gissler, he noted that

Beaver meat is eaten by everyone who catches this animal, and it is said it tastes like pork (p.221).

Enjoying the smoked beaver starter at 1221 in Riga. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

Enjoying the smoked beaver starter at 1221 in Riga. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

When I was in Riga this week, I finally had the change to taste beaver meat and I can tell you that it doesn’t taste like pork. I had hoped to eat some last summer when I went on a beaver safari, but since I was out on the very first trip of the season, the smokehouse hadn’t yet delivered the beaver meat. We ate dinner at Restorāns 1221, which is doing some fusion cuisine with local ingredients prepared in new ways. As I mentioned in my previous post, Latvia has lots of beavers after its reintroduction efforts. I had the smoked beaver starter with pine nuts and pineapple vinaigrette. The beaver was tasty but it has a strong flavour. I picked up the notes of castoreum, although not as strongly as when I drank castoreum liquor! So without knowing it, I was doing a good job at eating right in Lent. Perhaps the medieval recipes for pea soup or porridge with beaver tail could make a comeback next.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Gorse: a prickly subject

The special March issue of Environment and Nature in New Zealand contains seven articles – all by graduates of Otago University’s history department (see also: In search of Arcadia?). As the editor’s introduction states, these essays represent the most concentrated research effort in relation to environmental history of any history department in the country, and are […]

— envirohistory NZ

Bebrus in Latvia

This week I was on holiday in Riga, Latvia. One of our outings was to the Riga Zoo (Rīgas Zooloģiskais dārzs). Ever the researcher, I was on the look out for the animals that I’ve been working with on this project, beaver and muskox. Unfortunately, I didn’t see either one. The zoo supposedly does have a beaver, but he is most of the time out doing school show-and-tell according to the zoo information. In any case, I didn’t see him.

Entrance to the Riga Zoo

Entrance to the Riga Zoo. Photo by FA Jørgensen, all rights reserved.


In spite of that disappointment, the Riga Zoo has a connection to my beaver reintroduction research. In November 1934, Bever-Jenssen applied for a licence to send a pair of wild-caught Norwegian beavers to the Riga Zoo along with one pair for reintroduction in the Latvian countryside the following spring. According to the Riga Zoo’s online history, the ship Nidaros arrived in Riga on 11 April 1935 with beavers (bebrus is plural & bebrs is singular for beaver in Latvian), as well as reindeer, rhesus monkey, and English park cows for the zoo. Presumably the beaver pair for reintroduction were on the same boat. According to Francis Harper’s Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Old World (1945), this pair was set out in Smiltene to the northeast of Riga (although he says they were set out in 1936, which must be wrong).

These weren’t the first reintroduced bebrus in Latvia. Bever-Jenssen had sent two beavers from Norway to Latvia in 1928 (again Harper uses a different year, in this case 1927, but I’m going with the dates Jenssen writes since he was directly involved). These beavers were released in the State Forest of Kurland. They found themselves right at home and soon multiplied.

With success comes challenges. The Latvian Consulate General in Oslo sent a letter to Jenssen on 10 March 1939 asking for his help. The beavers had done so well that “in the district where they are now, they have practically eaten up everything with the name asp, and the forestry department wants therefore to move some of the beaver over to other districts.” They wanted to know what Jenssen would charge to come catch and relocate them and when he could do it. He wrote back 11 days later and remarked,

It is with great satisfaction that I note that the attempt in 1928 to reintroduce Norwegian beaver has succeed to this degree, that one is now capable of capturing the population to move them to other districts in the country: a “taxation” that you can really expect to get a high return on.

He recommended midsummer for the trip, but he’d have to check on the dates for two visitors who were coming to pick up beavers in summer 1939, and that it would cost 1,000 Norwegian kr (approx. 30,000 NOK / 5,000 US$ in 2013) plus travel expenses. I’m not sure if Jenssen made the trip, but I doubt he could have gone any later, as World War II arrived in the Baltic states with the Soviet occupation in 1940. Even if he moved these particular beavers, they would spread out on the own and probably reoccupy the area.

The beavers in Latvia continued to grow in number. In the 1950s, an additional 10 beavers from eastern Europe were reintroduced and beavers from Belarus spread northward into southeast Latvia. The population was estimated as 1,400 in 1973 and it was estimated as 70,000 in 1997 (Halley and Rosell 2002). Bebrus is back in a big way in Latvia.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

New RCC Perspectives Volume Reflects on Crossing Disciplines

"Minding the Gap: Working Across Disciplines in Environmental Studies"

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Oil-soaked hands across the border

It’s always interesting to see how one’s government portrays the country to people elsewhere.  So as I thumb through the last issue of The New Yorker, I find on the inside back cover a Government of Canada ad.  Against the backdrop of a nice green river valley, the ad states that “America and Canada have the same greenhouse gas reduction targets,” and that “Canada and America are committed to the same 17 per cent reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020.”  (The text of the ad is also available here.)
But as Jeffrey Simpson has explained the government’s own numbers indicate that there is no chance this 17 per cent reduction will be achieved.  In fact, emissions are expected to grow, thanks mainly to the oil sands.  Environmental Defence has a good overview of the oil sands and future greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, the point here is the Canadian government’s ongoing effort to build American support for the Keystone XL pipeline.  But as always, the cynicism applied to the task is a little breathtaking.

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science

Filipa Soares to begin PhD Project at Oxford University

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

An inconvenient animal

As I have worked through the historical material on animal reintroduction in Scandinavia and read countless reintroduction cases elsewhere, one thing strikes me as the truth about reintroduction: people are perfectly willing to live with animals as long as it doesn’t inconvenience people.

"Myskoxarna i Härjedalen" brochure, 1979.

“Myskoxarna i Härjedalen” brochure, 1979.

This really hit home as I looked through some archival material I gathered from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) archive last week. In autumn 1971, a small group of muskoxen had crossed the border from Norway to Sweden, but the animals don’t make an appearance in Naturvårdsverket’s documents until 1976 (at least that’s the earliest the helpful archivist Menada could find).

A letter from November 1976  was sent from Tännäs sameby to Naturvårdsverket. Tännäs is a small village in Härjedalen where the muskoxen had taken up residence. The “sameby” part of the name designates the village as a Sami, the indigenous group in Sweden, and gives the village special protection legally as a reindeer-herding community. The mayor of Tännäs sameby, Bengt Andersson, wrote the letter to complain that the county of Jämtland was not properly dealing with a complaint they had about muskoxen and asked that Naturvårdsverket, who claimed responsibility for the muskoxen, should respond. Attached to the letter was thorough documentation of the original complaint sent in August 1976.

The problem Andersson described came down to this: “the sameby’s grazing ground are suffering significant inconvenience and intrusion.” For one, tourists were coming into the area to try to see the muskoxen, causing the reindeer to be disturbed. On top of that, the police had used a helicopter in April 1976 in an attempt to drug a muskox that had been injured and the operation disturbed the annual reindeer collection, with the result that 2 extra weeks were required to herd up all the reindeer that had been scared away. The Sami people wanted some reimbursement for those expenses, which is perfectly understandable.

In September 1976, there was a “Muskox symposium” held in Funäsdalen which attracted 22 attendees, all official representatives of either local or national groups. At that event, Andersson also made his case against the muskox, but this time he spoke more about the affect on daily life:

The fact that muskox are impossible to move from places directly connected to cabins and reindeer pens, as well as other places for reindeer husbandry means that one has a significant additional workload. … The local people like Sami don’t know how to deal with muskoxen today. … It has happened that a Sami has come right into a flock of muskox grazing on both sides of a path.

Andersson added later in the meeting that he wanted a guarantee that no more muskoxen would come over the border. It was a matter of keeping the numbers down:

Reindeer herders accept muskoxen, but not in unlimited numbers. A few animals are totally acceptable.

As I read through Andersson’s comments and letters, he often uses the word “olägenhet” or inconvenience to describe the muskox situation. The word has a connotation in this context similar to “nuisance” in English law. In other words, it is something that bothers you enough to keep you from doing the things you think you should be able to do. And this is precisely what muskoxen in Tännäs were to the reindeer herders — inconvenient. In order to limit that inconvenience, they wanted to make sure no more would come into the area and they wanted financial compensation for their inconveniences.

I think this attitude is still the prevalent one when it comes to human-animal interactions, especially in cases where the animal has been reintroduced (whether intentionally or not). People say that animals are acceptable, but not in unlimited numbers. On top of that, people ask for financial compensation if a wild animal causes any kind of damage or interferes with human activities. We like nature, but not enough to accept inconvenience.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna