The Reclamation of Sudbury: The Greening of a Moonscape (Part 2 of 2)

This article was originally published in Viewpoint: Perspectives on Modern Mining, a publication of Caterpillar Global Mining (2008-Issue Four)

PERFECT TIMING

While mining companies were working on becoming better citizens of Sudbury, an effort was under way to begin turning around the community’s barren landscape.

The newly formed Regional Municipality of Sudbury created a “Technical Tree Planting Committee,” which in 1978 changed its name to the Vegetation Enhancement Technical Advisory Committee (VETAC). The organization is committed to the restoration and protection of Sudbury’s air, land and water.

At the same time, joint work between the Ministry of Natural Resources and Laurentian University was under way to create the “science” necessary to regreen Sudbury’s landscape.

As part of its reclamation efforts, Vale Inco had tried sowing grass seed—which would germinate, but the roots would wither as soon as they encountered the contaminated soil. After years of experimentation, Laurentian researchers—led by the late Keith Winterhalder, a Laurentian professor and former VETAC chairman—learned that an application of ground limestone could detoxify soil. They also learned that if a sparse grass cover could be established on a rocky hillside that had been treated with limestone and fertilizer, seeds from the few existing trees in the area would blow in, germinate and grow.

“This effort was a marriage of research expertise from the university and municipal involvement,” says Pearson. “For the university, it was both a research project and a public service. The people in municipal administration were also keen to get on with the work. They were conscious of the city’s image and wanted to change it.”

“The science isn’t really complicated,” says Pearson. “First lime is scattered onto the soil to help deal with the acidity. And then fertilizer is added to provide the nutrients that plants need. In the first four to five years of research, Keith Winterhalder and his colleagues learned what were effective mixtures of lime and fertilizer, what grasses would provide cover, what trees would survive, and how best to plant them.”

While the process isn’t complicated, it is very labor intensive. “Everything had to be done by hand, by armies of people carrying bags of lime,” says Pearson. “And after that was done, they would walk the land with bags of grass seed and fertilizer.”

Newly hired environmental planner Bill Lautenbach came across Winterhalder’s research just as the community learned that the mining companies were laying off thousands of workers. Lautenbach led a task force to come up with short-term job creation opportunities—and thanks to a number of federal and local grants, the city was able to put some of those unemployed people to work in the regreening effort.

“I knew about VETAC,” says Lautenbach. “So I tried to get funds for some short-term jobs to help with VETAC’s efforts, and they agreed. Over the years we have received numerous types of grants and funding to keep this project going.”

THE GREENING OF SUDBURY

Between 1978 and 2007, the “Greening of Sudbury” saw 3,300 hectares (8,100 acres) limed and seeded, and more than 8.8 million trees and 43,427 shrubs planted. This is one of the largest re-greening efforts in the world. It has been estimated that a total of 15 million trees have been planted over the past 30 years by VETAC, the industry and the community.

VETAC supplies seedlings, planting equipment and guidance to groups, clubs and schools. It also distributes thousands of pine seedlings every year to citizens for residential planting. Many of those seedlings come from Vale Inco, which grows 100,000 trees a year underground at its Creighton Mine, where temperatures are 20 to 24 degrees Celsius (68 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round.

“VETAC did not, of course, act alone,” says Pearson. “Federal and provincial governments provided funding. And without the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in new technology by the mining companies that drastically reduced sulphur emissions, all efforts of VETAC would have come to nothing.”

SEEING IMPROVEMENTS

For its first re-greening efforts, VETAC selected areas of Sudbury that were highly visible—near schools, in the center of the city, or along corridors coming into the community. It didn’t take long before the improvements were visible—and before community residents became even more energized to expand the efforts.

“Everyone knew it was going to be slow, slow work and we were in it for the long haul,” says Pearson. “A few dozen acres was the most we could expect to do at one time. But even early on there were very dramatic improvements.”

Lautenbach says the changes are both profound and subtle. “It seems a gradual change to those who grew up here, but to those who have not seen it in a while it is remarkable. It attracts people to Sudbury. It’s a different place today.”

WHY IT WORKED

While the technical side of the regreening effort was important, the social side has been equally as vital to the success of the program. “Getting the community involved is what has sustained the program,” says Pearson. “About 25 percent of the trees have been planted by community groups—Scouts, schools, Lions and Rotary  clubs. Some groups volunteer over and over again.”

Many of those involved with the regreening effort point to the people involved as the reason for its success. Some of the early members of VETAC—including Lautenbach and Laurentian botanist / ecologist Peter Beckett—are still involved today.

“This continuity of individuals, their determination, and the recognition that everyone would work has helped make this project succeed,” says Pearson.

Beckett agrees. “These people wanted to get things done,” he says. “After 35 years, there are still about 20 people who were there from the beginning. And the mining companies are a part of it, too.”

Pearson also points out the lack of finger-pointing as a key to success. “There was no blame,” he says. “The committee didn’t want to create hurdles by trying to figure out whose responsibility it was and who would pay. They looked within the city administration and applied to the government for small amounts to keep the work going. The mining companies were spending plenty of money working on their issues, so there was no advantage in laying blame.”

THE FUTURE OF THE REGREENING EFFORT

While much work has been done, much work remains. Pearson estimates that just 30 to 40 percent of the land that needs to be revegetated has been completed. There is work done every year on a small scale.

“The big question is ‘when will it be finished?’ ” says Beckett. “But we don’t know. We’re trying to bring back a forest. There are areas of Sudbury that were reclaimed over 30 years ago, and we still don’t know. How much do we do ourselves—and how much do we leave to nature?”

This is an important question to ecologists and to mining companies—which are charged with returning the lands they disrupt as close as possible to their pre-mining state.

“In the ecological world, when we cause a ‘disturbance,’ it may take 100 to 200 years to have a new forest,” Beckett continues. “We’re trying to move things along faster. We’ve overcome some of the critical inhibitions. We’ve fixed the soil so nature will take over. We’re in the process of assessing the sites to see if we can make a projection of how things are going.”

Beckett says the woodlands in Sudbury have been restructured. There are trees, insects and birds. “But we’re still missing many of the species. We haven’t got the whole assemblage of plants and animals back. We don’t have all the trees or ground species back.”

A new ecological concern also will affect the conditions in Sudbury: Climate change. “The annual temperature has increased 1 degree since 1970,” says Pearson. “That increases evaporation, so it seems likely we will have drier soil conditions. The soil isn’t as deep in Sudbury because of erosion, and the trees are young. There is some concern that drought might damage revegetated areas.”

Beckett says climate change may affect the planting schedules as well as the types of trees selected. “We can now plant trees in the fall when it used to be too cold. But our spring planting is affected by hotter, drier summers so many of the trees we used to plant in spring are not surviving,” he says. “We’ll keep doing research to see how well the sites are faring,” Beckett continues. “We’re also always looking at other ways to improve reclamation.”

Celebrating science—and mining—at Sudbury museum

The community of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has a history rich in science—from mining technology to geology to botany. Suggestions for a Sudbury museum began in the mid-1950s and continued until the late 1970s—when the chairman and vice chairman of mining company Vale Inco agreed to finance a study to explore the concept of a science center in Sudbury.

In January 1981, Vale Inco donated US$5 million to the project—the largest single corporate donation to a community project in Canadian history at that time. Falconbridge Ltd. donated US$1 million—the largest donation in its corporate history. And the Province of Ontario committed US$10 million to the project, paving the way to start construction on the new museum, called Science North.

Science North opened its doors in 1984 and now includes six attractions: a science center, IMAX Theatre, butterfly gallery, motion simulator, special exhibitions hall and Dynamic Earth, home of the Big Nickel. The science center boasts exhibits, theaters and science labs. It is configured around the labs, each led by a staff scientist, known as a Bluecoat, whose job it is to involve visitors in scientific activity inside the labs. The labs
explore astronomy, biology, physics, robotics, computer science, human physiology and more.

In 2003, Science North opened Dynamic Earth—a mining and geology attraction that combines both above and below-ground experiences. The seven-story Vale Inco chasm leads to an underground mining tour, where visitors witness the transformation of mining over the last 100 years. Other attractions include the Rockhound Lab, where visitors can trade their own rock and minerals for samples in the lab; a newly renovated Explora Mine—a scaled down version of a real working mine—and Mining Command Center, which includes a new Caterpillar® excavator simulator training program; and the Xstrata Nickel Gallery—a walk-through theater that takes visitors through above-ground mineral processing.

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