This article was originally published in Viewpoint: Perspectives on Modern Mining, a publication of Caterpillar Global Mining (2008-Issue Four)
Community and industry come together to save the environment
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, is a tourist destination, with major attractions like Science North and its internationally renowned science center and IMAX Theatre, dozens of lakes and scenic attractions. It has been called one of the sunniest areas of Ontario, with clean air and world-renowned environmental initiatives. It has even been cited by the United Nations for its land reclamation program and has won several other international and national awards.
However, Sudbury looked radically different just 35 years ago, when a group of transplanted professors, municipal employees, mining company leaders and local residents put their heads together to come up with a way to save it.
Years of mining, logging, fires, smelter emissions and soil erosion had taken their toll, wiping out almost all of the vegetation in the area and poisoning lakes and streams. Because there were no trees on barren sites, there were no leaves to create the mulch that protects the soil. As a result, the barren soil suffered from severe frost in the winter and too much heat in the summer.
Sudbury’s landscape was compared to the surface of the moon. Editorial cartoonists joked that birds had to carry their lunchboxes from tree to tree because they were few and far between.
And in the late 1970s, the community, its university and the mining companies decided to do something about it.
WHAT HAPPENED IN SUDBURY
The Sudbury landscape today is the result of several environmental factors acting together over a period of almost a century. Vegetation damage began with irresponsible logging, fire and roasting beds, but the decades of intense fumigation from smelters caused most of the damage. The poisoning of the soil by the addition of acids and toxic metals from smelter fumes created conditions that were unlikely to allow rapid natural recovery.
While logging and fires are blamed for some of the damage to the landscape, mining is held accountable for most. For the past century, Sudbury has produced copper and nickel—and a dozen other metals. Today, the 18 active mines in the area yield more than 50,000 tonnes (55,000 short tons) of ore each day. Reserves are substantial and new deposits are still being found—making mining a likely activity in Sudbury for decades to come.
While mining operations took a toll on the landscape, the majority of the damage is blamed on smelting. “The regulations we have in place today to protect the environment weren’t there decades ago,” says Dr. David Pearson, one of Canada’s foremost science communicators, a professor of earth sciences at Laurentian University, and the founding director of Science North. “There was widespread contamination from smelter
fumes, as well as acidic runoff from waste rock.” The damage impacted over 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) and 17,000 lakes in the region.
Pearson explains that metal droplets from the smelters were swept up the stacks by the velocity of the rising sulphur dioxide gas. The droplets froze into metallic dust that drifted to the ground and left the soil heavily contaminated with metal. In turn, the acidity of the soil mobilized the metals in the soil and made them toxic to plants. Because the soil was no longer able to support grass or shrubs, surface layers of soil that held organic materials washed away with nothing there to hold it in place. Slopes and high land in the region lost close to a foot of soil.
A MINING TOWN
Two major mining companies were responsible for the bulk of the activity in Sudbury—Inco (now Vale Inco) and Falconbridge (now Xstrata).
“Vale Inco and Sudbury grew up together,” says Vale Inco spokesman Cory McPhee, director of communications and public affairs. “There was a period when we were ‘Mother Inco,’ and the community relied on us for everything. It was not always a loving relationship. It was born of dependency and the company was perceived as arrogant at times.”
At its peak, Vale Inco employed 20,000 people in the mines and processing plants. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, both the company and the community were hit by a downturn in the world nickel markets that saw layoffs, shutdowns and lengthy labor disputes that strained the relationship.
“The company faced a number of ongoing issues that threatened its relationship with the community,” says McPhee. These included the atmospheric sulphur emissions that scarred the surrounding landscape and destroyed vegetation and acidified lakes; sulphur dioxide leaks into the surrounding community; blasting noise and vibrations in people’s homes; and operating noise and dust.
McPhee said the company finally came to an important realization—that Vale Inco and the community must work together. “We benefited from the ore and the community benefited from the ore. We finally realized that we could get much further if we were partners.”
IMPROVING PERFORMANCE AND REDUCING EMISSIONS
Government regulations and newly developed methods of removing sulfur from the ore and smelter fumes have caused significant reductions in emissions. Emissions were reduced at both the Copper Cliff (Vale Inco) and Falconbridge (Xstrata) smelters—in some cases by as much as 90 percent.
“We recognized early on that improving our communications and social responsibility would only take the company so far,” explains McPhee. “We knew we had to work on our performance—reducing emissions, dealing with the impact of our operations to-date, and improving our blasting operations.”
In the early 1970s, Vale Inco erected the Superstack, a 380-meter-tall (1,247-foot-tall) chimney constructed at a cost of US$25 million to protect the nearby city from smelter emissions.
In 1994, the company completed a US$600 million sulphur dioxide abatement project, significantly reducing emissions and improving air quality in the Sudbury region. Work on emission reductions continues today— with close to US$1 billion spent since 1980. The company has reduced emissions in Sudbury by more than 90 percent. Most recently, a further 34 percent reduction was achieved in October 2006 with the introduction of new scrubbing technology at the company’s fluid bed roaster facility. More significant cuts are planned by 2015.
“The essence of our emission reduction efforts is to capture and convert the sulphur dioxide that would otherwise be emitted and transform it into marketable products,” says McPhee. “We do it for environmental reasons, but we’re also able to sell the resulting sulphuric acid and liquid sulphur dioxide.”
The reductions in emissions set the stage for further reclamation activities including pioneering techniques such as aerial seeding of large tracts of barren land inaccessible by traditional treatment methods. The company also launched and paid for a US$10 million soil study in partnership with Xstrata, looking at the impact to human health and the environment of years of metal deposits. Other partners in the study included
the City of Greater Sudbury, the Sudbury and District Health Unit, the Ontario Ministry of Environment, and Health Canada Inuit and First Nations Branch.
Vale Inco also improved its blasting operations. “We agreed not to blast before or after certain hours,” says McPhee. “And we set up a phone system that automatically calls residents before blasts over a certain size. Residents told us that just knowing what was happening has made a huge difference. It wasn’t a technical solution; it was a community solution.”
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