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The Networker: Volume 17 No. 2

Principles of Perpetual Care for Contaminated Sites - March 2012
The Networker
I. Editor's note--Facing the impossible By Nancy Myers
II. From Principles of Perpetual Care: Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Carolyn Raffensperger, lead author


I. Editor's note--Facing the impossible


By Nancy Myers

In 2010 SEHN's executive director, Carolyn Raffensperger, took on an impossible task. At the request of Alternatives North, a social justice group operating in Northwest Territories, Canada, she agreed to draw up principles of care for a site that was contaminated for a very long time.

Never one to shrink from impossible tasks, she went to work. But even Carolyn was daunted by what she discovered about the meaning of "a very long time." The rough numbers indicated that arsenic trioxide and other toxins left in the abandoned Giant Gold Mine in Northwest Territories would poison the site for 250,000 years. That puts it into the forever category.

The Canadian government planned to freeze the arsenic in place. But the First Nations and environmental groups in the area found that plan almost laughably inadequate. And so they demanded that the government consider what else could be done. That is why Carolyn was invited to tackle the ethical and practical demands of drawing up principles of perpetual care.

Of course, the first principle must be, never again. But there are countless sites around the globe where that resolve comes too late, and then we must decide what to do.

What follows here are excerpts from the first part of the plan. Carolyn is the principal author and SEHN board member Rebecca Gasior Altman and others helped her think it through. It lays out five principles of perpetual care for contaminated sites. The rest of the plan shows how they can be applied. You can access the pdf of the 28-page report at It is now being considered by the Canadian government.

But first, take three minutes to meet SEHN's newest colleagues, Stick Girl and Stick Guy, in this video I made to introduce the report. In the face of impossibilities, one thing we must do is laugh.


II. From Principles of Perpetual Care: Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.


Carolyn Raffensperger, lead author

This paper was prepared to assist decision-makers and community members to make wise decisions for the long-term care of an abandoned gold mine called the Giant Mine near the city of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Canada.

The Giant Mine began production in 1948 and closed in 2004. It produced over 7.6 million ounces of gold. It also produced a vast quantity of arsenic trioxide. The Giant Mine contains 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust. This huge quantity of dust is water soluble. It has already contaminated lakes and streams in the surrounding area. Extraordinary measures will be required to maintain the site forever.

The Giant Mine is not an isolated phenomenon. Since World War II humans have created toxic and nuclear accident and waste sites that will be hazardous for 250,000 years and beyond, essentially the next 10,000 generations. This is a unique problem in all of human history. Archaeologists tell us that the longest we have entertained something even remotely like this are the pyramids in Egypt, which have been among us for 5,000 years or 200 generations. Anatomically modern humans appeared about 4,000 generations ago, and fully modern humans appeared about 2,400 generations ago.

Because planning for 10,000 generations is outside the range of human experience, the aim of care at sites like the Giant Mine should be to protect people, other living things, soil, and water for the foreseeable future.

These principles are not designed to be a panacea or suggest that once they are in place this generation may go forward with more technologies that add to the burden placed on future generations. Instead, they are designed to deal ethically with places that are long-term disasters. They should help us do our best to prevent the creation of any more sites that require infinite care and boundless resources.

Five Principles to Inform Decisions about Perpetual Care

All of the principles can be stated simply: Present generations will use the precautionary principle to prevent harm to future generations and the ecosystem so that the future ones inherit a healthy commons. No action will be taken without the free, prior, and informed participation and consent of the residents and future generations.

Each of the five principles brings an essential set of ideas and orientation that must guide decisions about perpetual care.

1. Responsibility to Future Generations

All of life is centered on regeneration and bringing new life into the world. This is a biological fact that compels the corresponding ethic of taking responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. But it is not the ethic that undergirds Western economies and political systems. These are instead predicated on utilitarianism, the ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number—a number in which future generations are not included.

Emerging problems like climate change, the loss of biodiversity, mountaintop removal, and toxic and radioactive sites requiring perpetual care have vaulted humanity into an entirely new arena. It is essential to adopt and act out of an ethic that asserts a duty and responsibility for future generations.

One significant way to incorporate this ethic would be to appoint a legal guardian for future generations who would be charged with the authority and responsibility to be the voice of future generations in all deliberations around the Giant Mine.

2. Protection of "the Commons"

The commons represent all of the gifts of nature and culture that come to us as members of the community of Earth and of a specific place. Air, water, wildlife, literature, the ocean, the moon and sun, and culture are things that we share. We do not own these individually as private property. We have rights with each other and responsibilities to each other for the things we share. The commons provide the basis for community wellbeing, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It is the commons that present generations must leave intact to future generations.

The Giant Mine and some other places that require perpetual care are failures of law and government to protect the commons from private property owners who reap the financial benefits but externalize their costs onto the commons—and from present generations who reap the financial benefits but externalize their costs onto future generations. Essentially, sites like the Giant Mine are anti-commons, public liabilities, and moral failures.

For too long governments in Western societies have protected individual private property at the expense of the commons. The pendulum must now swing in the other direction: governments at all levels must accept their responsibilities as trustees of the commons and protect them for present and future generations. At minimum this means that private property owners, such as mining companies, as well as present generations, must internalize their costs. This also means that present generations will not leave debts to future generations without corresponding assets.

Since it is impossible to leave adequate resources to care for sites in perpetuity, sites requiring perpetual care should not be created in the first place. However, given the existence of such sites, the commons of air, water, land, wildlife, public health, and culture must be the first order of that care.

3. Free, Prior, and Informed Participation and Consent

Free, prior, and informed consent is a fundamental principle of human rights and law that can be traced back to the Nuremberg trials of doctors who experimented on patients without their consent. It applies to many areas of human activity that threaten the integrity of the body, or the dignity of the person. Apart from medical and scientific ethics, the most developed area of the law of free, prior, and informed consent is the right of indigenous and Aboriginal peoples. Canada endorsed the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in November of 2010. The Declaration spells out how this right applies to sites requiring perpetual care in Articles 10, 28:1, 29, and 32.

Access to free, prior, and informed consent should be extended to future generations for any decisions that will bind them. Perpetual care will require future generations to pay for a liability they did not create and from which they will not benefit. To the extent possible a legal guardian should be appointed to participate in all decisions regarding perpetual care to assert the interests of future generations and give or withhold free, prior, and informed consent to any decision.

The requirement for free, prior, and informed consent has two parts. The first is the human right to participate in decisions that affect one’s life. The second is the corresponding duty of responsible parties to guarantee that no action is taken that violates that right. The right and the duty are matters of ethics and law. The embedded wisdom, which goes beyond ethics and law in the requirement for free, prior, and informed consent, is that decisions made in this way are much more likely to result in the health and wellbeing of the people and the land over the long term.

[For more on free, prior, and informed consent, see The Networker 17:1]

4. Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle directs us to take action to prevent harm in the face of scientific uncertainty. It is the Golden Rule for future generations. The precautionary principle is used in Canada. Health Canada uses the principle in decision-making.

The precautionary principle is the central tool that guides the perpetual care processes of prevention, adaptation, and mitigation. Over the years implementing the precautionary principle has been distilled into five steps or measures:

a. Heed early warnings We must pay attention to the first signals that harm may happen in order to prevent greater damage. At sites requiring perpetual care, systems must be in place to pick up such signals.

b. Set goals Goals provide direction for action. What short- and long-term goals does the community have for the Giant Mine and its surroundings? What do Yellowknife and Canada wish to leave to future generations? If the community sets goals and mobilizes all possible scientific and cultural tools, it is far more likely that the damage will be minimized and the site and community will begin to heal.

c. Choose the best alternatives What are all the possible technologies for containing the arsenic at the Giant Mine? Which ones use the least energy, are the most easily monitored, and are most harmonious with nature? Which are the most cost-effective—not just to this generation but to future ones as well?

d. Reverse the burden of proof The precautionary principle puts responsibility back on the proponents of an activity, rather than the customer, the public, or government. In the context of a contaminated site that is now a public liability or responsibility, this may mean that the national or regional government should bear the financial costs and ensure there is local capacity to deal with perpetual care.

e. Practice democratic decision-making in the form of free, prior, and informed participation and consent Finally, since the precautionary principle embodies the ethic of preventing harm in the context of what we know and do not know, it is best carried out by all affected stakeholders in a democratic process. But the concept of democracy is not one person, one vote; it must satisfy the principle of free, prior, and informed participation and consent before a decision is taken in any perpetual care "solutions."


5. Nature as Guide

Current decisions use economics rather than ecology as measure. Perpetual care decisions must use nature as a model and emulate ecological forms, processes, and strategies. Perpetual care should employ an ecological standard to judge the sustainability of the technology and systems designed to deal with the waste and site. As the Biomimicry Institute description says, "After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what lasts." Nature will be the primary teacher through time about what will work and what will not. Humans must be learning from nature for as long as the site is hazardous.

One important lesson of nature is humility: it may be impossible to foresee the ways in which parts of complex systems will interact, or to anticipate how failures propagate through complex systems. Because nature will prevail at the Giant Mine given the timeframe of perpetual care, technologies and restoration techniques employed at the site must work in harmony with nature. Insofar as possible we must rely on natural processes such as erosion and foreseeable trends such as climate change in planning for perpetual care, rather than engineered structures that require large inputs of energy, maintenance, and special skills or equipment.

Read more about how these principles apply to specific tasks in perpetual care. Download the 28-page pdf here.