As he read The Narwhal’s story about health hazards at a long-closed Yukon asbestos mine, Richard did a double take when he scrolled past a photo.
“I almost went right by it and then I realized there’s something familiar about it,” he recalls. “And I thought, oh, that looks like me.”
Reader: it was him. The young, skinny kid on the right? That’s a 22-year-old Richard, fifty years ago this past summer. It was a period in his life that he had put in a time capsule, but thanks to a moment of Narwhal serendipity a photo and a reader collided to transplant Richard back in time.
“I can remember standing there. … It’s funny when something like this comes back and brings it all home to you.”
“There” was Clinton Creek, on the western border of Yukon, or about 100 kilometres northwest of Dawson City. It was the summer of 1970, months after Richard and his pal Don had hitchhiked from B.C.’s Fraser Valley up to the territory in the dead of winter — barely escaping a -55 C cold snap thanks to the help of an American serviceman headed to Alaska.
By summer, the two friends had found work at the mine, which had opened a few years prior to extract asbestos — a mineral later found to cause cancer.
At the time that picture was taken, Richard was working as a blaster’s helper, a job that would involve drilling holes and setting off explosives.
“We’d jump in the truck when we set the charge and race down the hill and climb into one of the buckets with the shovels and take pictures,” Richard says.
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“Obviously I hadn’t been cleaning my clothes very much; it was a bit of a dirty job.”
A bit of a dirty job is probably an understatement when it comes to an asbestos mine.
Before the blaster gig, Richard started off in Clinton Creek’s bagging machine department, where 60-pound blocks of asbestos fibre would come out on a set of rollers. The blocks would come out quickly, and it was Richard’s job to bag them and put them on a scale to ensure they were heavy enough.
“A lot of the time it was like a snowstorm when something went wrong in the mill,” he says. “We had snowball fights with [the asbestos fibres].”
Yes, you read that right. Asbestos snowball fights.
“We didn’t know it was dangerous,” Richard recalls, “and if anybody did they didn’t say.”
Uncomfortable with the idea of fibre in the air — “it just didn’t seem right” — he managed to transfer to the blasting crew.
Richard says his family “laughed at the dirty, skinny kid with the big beard” when he showed them the picture in The Narwhal from all those moons ago.
But while it may have only been a one-off summer job for him, many others spent years working at the site, unknowingly putting themselves at risk. Richard still wonders about what happened to the men he worked alongside.
And even though Clinton Creek was shuttered in 1978, it still hasn’t been remediated. That means health hazards and flood risk are still a factor, especially for a small Alaskan city downstream of the old mine.
As for the cleanup? We’re waiting for a plan to be put in place. The Narwhal plans to keep tabs on when that work will actually get underway.
Take care and stay safe,
Audience Engagement Editor
The Narwhal in the world
Wow, talk about some buzz. We knew Sarah Cox’s investigation into troubles at B.C.’s Site C dam would spark chatter, but even we couldn’t have predicted this much uptake across media outlets.
Sarah chatted about the 2,247 pages of revelations with CBC On the Island, CBC Daybreak North, CKNW’s Jill Bennett Show and Weekend Mornings and Moose FM in the Peace region — where construction remains ongoing.
I don’t need to tell you that investigations like Sarah’s take time and resources. We’re able to break these stories thanks to the generous support of more than 1,700 members who give whatever they can each month because they know The Narwhal produces top-notch journalism you can’t find anywhere else. And you don’t have to take my word for it — just glimpse at this feedback we received on Sarah’s story:
“Another stellar example of great journalism.”
“What can one say about the brilliance of Sarah Cox and The Narwhal.”
“I’m glad we have people willing to work this hard on getting facts out in the open.”
“This is a perfect example of the public service that The Narwhal provides. Proud to be a supporter.”
If you believe in the work we do and have the means, please consider joining our Narwhal pod as a monthly member. With your help, we’ll be able to break even more big stories and hold our public officials accountable.
This week in The Narwhal
By Arik Ligeti
The B.C. NDP victory comes amid lingering questions about the fate of the Site C dam and whether the province will be able to meet its climate targets. Read more.
By Sarah Cox
West Vancouver-Sea to Sky includes Whistler’s famous ski slopes, threatened old-growth forests and an inlet still recovering from a history of industrial pollution. Read more.
By Julien Gignac
The territorial government wants to move from burning fossil fuels to wood in a bid to reduce emissions from heating. But critics wonder if the impacts to forests and the climate are being overlooked. Read more.
‘We’re living in a powerful moment’: Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach reflects on his first year in office
By Matt Simmons
It’s been a whirlwind introduction to federal politics for the former mayor of Smithers, B.C., whose riding has become the epicentre of the Wet’suwet’en conflict over the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Read more.
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