Mick Lowe’s column – On The Rock – was originally published December 6, 2000 in Northern Life, Greater Sudbury’s community newspaper.
What are the environmental and health effects of living near one of the world’s largest laterite nickel mining and smelting complexes, specifically Inco’s operation on the Island of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia?
That was the big question on Evan Edinger’s mind when he went to visit the village of Soroako earlier this fall. Edinger is a post-doctorate fellow in geology at Laurentian University, and the first scientifically trained, independent observer from Sudbury to visit Inco’s Indonesian operations.
What Edinger found was a lush, mountainous tropical setting which, superficially, at least, has suffered little of the environmental devestation so sommon around Inco’s activities here On the Rock.
Much of the contrast, Edinger believes, is due to the difference in the chemical makeup of sulphide nickel ores, which is what we mine here in Sudbury, and laterite nickel ores, which is the type of nickel mined throughout the tropics.
The sulphur content in nickel oxide or laterite ore is much lower than in the nickel suphides which are mined here. In fact, elemental sulphur and coal are actually added to the laterite ore to help turn it into a sulphide which can be more readily smelted, according to Edinger.
Of greater concern to area residents than the denudation of vegetation from sulphur dioxide are peculiar windborne dusts which are believed to originate from the Inco smelter, Edinger explains.
The dusts vary in colour – from yellow to red – and in direction carried, because the prevailing winds tend to blow from the northwest by day, and from the southeast at night.
As a result one village is downwind from the smelter by day, while another is downwind at night. Edinger personally observed yellow dust at the far end of Lake Matano, 22 kilometres distant from the smelter, and red dust caked on the leaves of vegetation which he suspects may be from oil and/or coal dust produced by the smelting process.
Edinger also witnessed oily depositions on the lake which may have been produced by raindrops which nucleated around soot particles from the coal used in the smelting process.
“The villagers are concerned with the dust because they breathe it, but also because they believe it damages their crops,” Edinger reports, though he emphasizes that there is – so far – no scientific evidence that these claims are true.
In 1996 the company installed precipitators to reduce atmospheric fallout on three of its five reduction kilns, Edinger was told, and that has reduced, though not eliminated, particulate emissions.
Another concern is runoff from the Inco tailing ponds. While the tailings are treated, there have been reports both of fish kills and fish deformation in Lake Mahalona, a small lake downriver from the much larger Lake Matano, where both villagers and Inco executives draw their drinking water.
“If you are going to pollute a lake, Mahalona is the one to use,” Edinger observes, “because it’s uninhabited.”
Even so, local residents still eat fish from Mahalona. There are also worries that chemicals and heavy metals from tailings lechate could be flowing down the Larona River and into the Gulf of Bona in the Indian Ocean.
Edinger returned to Sudbury with sediment samples taken locally and as far downstream as the coast, which could help to ascertain how far the tailings leachate has or has not spread.
The 36 year-old- scientist, who will move to St. John in the spring to take up a teaching position at Newfoundland’s Memorial Univeristy, has identified seven potential long-term scientific studies that should be done regarding the impact of Inco’s operations.
These include baseline studies on water supply, sediment runoff and airborne dusts, scrutiny of rainfall, fish kill and other anomalies, and examinations of environmental and occupational disease.
Edinger hopes to help establish study teams that can, over time, work with Soroako’s indigenous inhabitants, Indonesian authorities and the company to further minimize the adverse impacts of nickel mining and smelting in the area, while increasing the benefits for all.