Officials in charge of the Giant Mine remediation efforts are unsure why 28 of their cleanup workers are presenting elevated levels of arsenic in their urine.
Regular medical monitoring of employees, which includes weekly urine samples, shows nearly 30 workers have been exposed to arsenic trioxide contained in the mine, with levels of at least 35 micrograms of arsenic per litre of urine.
The defunct gold mine, under remediation by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) since last May, contains underground chambers containing 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, a deadly toxin and known carcinogen created during the ore roasting process.
Dave Grundy, president of the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC), said AANDC is bound by legislation to share all cases of elevated levels with the commission, which first started coming in around August of last year.
Though sickness from arsenic exposure can take decades to appear, he said he wants workers to understand the risks and the claims process now.
“Sickness as a result of arsenic can take many, many years, and it may not ever happen. So that’s the whole issue here. People have been exposed; will they get sick? I’m not a doctor; I can’t say they will, I can’t say they won’t,” Grundy said.
“But we try to keep our workers safe, so we want to make sure they’re aware of the process that’s involved in making a claim at some point in time. If you were exposed today and you test over, the employer filed the claim, and if 10 or 20 years from now you develop some type of a cancer, then you could file the claim saying you believe this cancer may be as a result of exposure. We go back and find your claim…and go from there.”
Though he could not say if the WSCC had addressed claims of arsenic poisoning in the past, he said the commission has dealt with cases of asbestos exposure, which impacts people similarly over the long term.
“That’s why we want to get these registered now,” Grundy said.
The WSCC is now working with AANDC on fixing the problem. The remediation program is on pause over the winter, but Grundy said he wants to see the problems fixed before people go back to work.
“In any type of work situation, whether it’s falling off a roof, slipping on a poor worksite or exposure to chemicals, we work with the employer. The Mine Safety Act is very clear on what the responsibilities of the employer are, and we ensure that the employer complies with what the act says, give them some advice and help them along, and we go back and check to make sure that they are complying,” he said.
AANDC representatives did not respond to requests for comment, but other media reports stated workers who tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic were moved from high-risk to low-risk work areas on site.
None of the affected workers have submitted claims to the WSCC.