Research

Giant Mine Oversight Board (GMOB): Research Program

237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide dust are currently stored in fourteen underground chambers at the Giant Mine site. After evaluating a wide range of technical solutions to manage potential environmental impacts associated with the dust, the Project Team determined that its preferred method was to permanently freeze the dust and the rock around each underground chamber.

The Environmental Assessment of the remediation project concluded that the “frozen block” method was the most appropriate technical solution currently available. However, it was also determined that freezing should not be viewed as the permanent solution and that emerging technologies should continue to be investigated. As a result, GMOB through Article 7 of the Giant Mine Remediation Environmental Agreement, has been tasked with supporting research into technical approaches that could serve as a permanent solution.

The GMOB released the “Giant Mine State of Knowledge Review: Arsenic Dust Management Strategies” report in August 2017. This report considered the state of current remediation technologies that could be considered for future arsenic trioxide remediation.

A gathering of administrators of research institutions and programs was held in late 2017 to discuss the required steps to develop the GMOB Research Program.  The meeting recommended approaching TERRE-NET to discuss the establishment of a collaborative research program.    

TERRE-NET (https://terre-net.ca) brings together leading experts from Canadian universities working in the fields of geochemistry, hydrogeology, mineralogy, biogeochemistry, mine effluent treatment, geotechnical engineering, nanotechnology, environmental microbiology, resource economics, environmental sociology and interactions with Aboriginal communities. Through an integrated approach, the network develops improved, cost-effective and socially acceptable strategies for managing mine tailings and mitigating contamination. It is headquartered at the University of Waterloo.

Subsequently, meetings were held with the administrators of TERRE-NET.  GMOB hosted a workshop (March 19-20, 2018) in Yellowknife with TERRE-NET. This provided further context for the research mandate and introduced TERRE-NET’s expertise. Regular meeting deciding on the progressive steps were held with GMOB attending TERRE-NET’s AGM in 2018 and 2019. Guests from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the North Slave Metis Alliance also attended the 2018 event at GMOBs invitation.

GMOB signed a contract with the University of Waterloo for TERRE-NET to engage in a formal document review and present their findings to GMOB at a workshop in Edmonton (October 2-4, 2018). It was at this meeting that the focus of the joint research program was developed.

GMOB signed a four year Master Research Agreement with the University of Waterloo on May 3, 2019. This agreement guides the administration of the GMOB Research Program. GMOB has approved four research initiatives under this agreement:

 Research Project 1: Schedule B-2 : Examination of Arsenic trioxide dust composition and solubility. 
This will be led by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and Queens University

Research Project 2: Schedule B-3 : Sulfidation of Arsenic trioxide to form low solubility Arsenic trisulphide.
This will be led by researchers at the University of Ottawa

Reseach Project 3: Schedule B-4 : Stabilization of Arsenic trioxide dust in cemented paste backfill.
This will be led by researchers at the University of Alberta and the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

Research Project 4: Schedule B-5  : Geochemical and leaching characterization of vitrified arsenical glass.
This will be led by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

Any research proposals outside of TERRE-NET are welcomed by the Giant Mine Oversight Board. They will be formally evaluated by an independent commitee currently being created.


Article 7: Active Research Toward a Permanent Solution for Arsenic

7.1 Research Program

In order to facilitate active research toward a permanent solution for dealing with arsenic at the Giant Mine site, the Oversight Body shall, on a periodic basis, ensure that:

  1. reports on relevant emerging technologies are produced;
  2. research priorities are identified;
  3. research funding is administered;
  4. results of research are made public; and
  5. the results of each cycle are applied to the next cycle of the steps described in sections 7.1(a) through 7.1(d).

7.2 Engagement

In conducting all of its activities described in section 7.1 (“Research Program”), the Oversight Body shall:

  1. encourage public awareness of its work; and
  2. create opportunities for interested persons, including the Parties, to participate as the Oversight Body considers meaningful and appropriate.

7.3 Existing Programs

In conducting all of its activities described in sections 7.1 (“Research Program”), the Oversight Body shall make best use of existing research institutions and programs.The research program will focus on the identifying effective arsenic trioxide management alternatives that are capable of protecting human health and the environment forever, that does not require human intervention.


Arsenic Trioxide (As2O3)

Chemical Compound:
Formula:As2O3
Molar mass:197.841 g/mol
CAS ID:1327-53-3 [1]
Density:3.74 g/cm³
Boiling point:465 °C
Melting point:312.2 °C

The word arsenic is derived from the Persian zarnikh and Syriac zarniqa, later incorporated into ancient Greek as arsenikon, which meant “masculine” or “potent” and referred primarily to orpiment, or yellow arsenic. The word became arsenicum in Latin and arsenic in old French, from which the current English term is derived. [2]

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil, water, plants and animals.  The properties of arsenic have been known since antiquity. Arsenic is naturally occurring in the food chain and is present in a wide array of foods, including flour, corn, wheat, fruit, poultry, sea food, rice and vegetables, as well as beer and wine, fruit juices and water. In modern times, arsenic has been used in a variety of applications including as wood preservatives, pesticides, in specific medical treatments and the semiconductor industry.

Arsenic trioxide is an arsenolite, an oxidation product of arsenic sulphides (white arsenic, As2O3). It is an inorganic compound created as a by-product of the process of extracting gold from arsenopyrite ores.  At the Giant Mine, roasting the ore at high temperatures released an arsenic-rich gas requiring the use of electrostatic precipitators, and bag houses to capture arsenic compounds. Up to 99.7% of the dust and fumes produced during roasting were captured, once the equipment was installed and operational. Prior to this, the arsenic gases were released directly into the atmosphere.

Over the lifetime of the Giant Mine, 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust were collected and are now stored in chambers underground at the mine site. This collected dust is water soluble and contains approximately 60% arsenic trioxide and other minerals such as iron, antimony and gold.

References

  1. A CAS Registry Number, also referred to as CASRN or CAS ID, is a unique numerical identifier assigned by Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) to every chemical substance described in the open scientific literature (currently including those described from at least 1957 through the present), including organic and inorganic compounds, minerals, isotopes, alloys and non-structurable materials (UVCBs, of unknown, variable composition, or biological origin)
  2. Vahidnia A, van der Voet GB, de Wolff FA. Arsenic neurotoxicity – a review. Human Experiment Toxicol 2007: 26: 823-832

Surface and Offsite Contamination

In addition to arsenic trioxide stored underground, the environment surrounding the Giant Mine site has been contaminated from arsenic trioxide dispersed during mine operations. While the Giant Mine Oversight Board has concluded that its research mandate will focus on the arsenic trioxide currently stored underground, it fully recognizes the importance of research and remediation related to surface contamination, including the aquatic environment. GMOB will continue to strongly encourage research into surface contamination issues by the appropriate agencies.