The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.
Despite an impassioned resolution put forth by the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, which supported the construction and operation of a ferrochrome smelter at Exton, the government of Ontario announced May 9 that Capreol would be home to the new facility.
It was a matter of logistics, say Bill Boor, senior vice-president of global ferroalloys at Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources, and David Cartella, general manager of environmental affairs and environmental counsel at Cliffs.
“We went through a pretty extensive analysis of all the sites where the furnace could be located,” they explain. “There were only a handful of sites that could handle this, and Sudbury was one of them … The power solution is why Sudbury was the winner.”
Electric arc furnaces, which are used to melt chromite ore, reach temperatures of 2,800 C. The amount of electricity needed to run the furnaces at the Capreol smelter could power a city of 300,000, Ramsey Hart, Canada program co-ordinator at Mining Watch Canada, says. “The operation of the mine and the transportation of the minerals also have significant carbon footprints,” he says.
Joan Kuyek, a former resident of Sudbury and the founding national co-ordinator of Mining Watch Canada, has written extensively on the dangers and challenges of chromite mining. She says the smelter will produce “increased greenhouse gases,” which will contribute to climate change.
“A ferrochromium smelter is an enormous consumer of energy — requiring 3,000-4,000 kWh per tonne of ferrochromium produced,” she writes in a blog post published on The Media Co-op website.
“The modern Merafe smelter in South Africa produces 28.25 carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per tonne of ferrochrome produced.”
Kuyek says sustainable mining is an oxymoron and agrees with Hart the best alternative to new chromite mining projects is to reduce demand.
“Recycling and reducing our consumption of ‘stuff ‘ is the only alternative to mining new minerals, be it chromite or other metals,” Hart says. He concedes, however, “in the short term, there is likely a need to mine new chromite — the question is where and how.”
Michael Lesher, a Laurentian University geology professor and research chair in mineral exploration, says Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of the chromite project before deciding if it makes sense.
“I am not a philosopher, but life is full of trade-offs: If we do not need the mining royalties for First Nations communities, employment opportunities for First Nations and other communities, and all of the other downstream employment opportunities across Ontario and Canada, we do not need to mine these deposits,” he muses. “On the other hand, if we want to generate income to maintain our lifestyles, we should mine them. The footprint of an open-pit mine is much larger than an underground mine, but the percentage of land occupied by mining is extremely small.”
There are several hazards associated with chromite mining, not simply the increased production of greenhouse gases. Chromite-6 (Cr- VI), also known as hexavalent chromium, is produced during extraction and smelting processes. It is a major concern for Mining Watch Canada and Kuyek. While there are a number of chromite valences, chromite-3 (Cr-III) and Cr-VI appear to be the most common, and Cr-VI is certainly the most dangerous.
“Chromium is very toxic, but is usually found in a form that is not readily taken up into our cells,” Hart says. “Industrial processes, including mining and smelting, can convert the less harmful chromium into the more toxic form.”
Most of the chromium contained in the Ring of Fire is in the form of Cr-III.
“The chromium in chromite is entirely Cr-III and therefore inert and (I assume unless inhaled as dust) non-toxic,” Lesher explains. “Under oxidizing conditions (natural and man-made), Cr-VI can form. I am a geologist, not an epidemiologist, but I have read that it is toxic in smaller doses than Cr- III because it is a strong oxidant.”
The problem occurs during smelting, when Cr-III is converted to Cr-VI.
“A byproduct of all ferrochromium smelters is hexavalent chromium, which will be distributed in dust from the plant, will be stored in tailings impoundments and will seep into our waterways and aquifers,” Kuyek writes. “Unlike Cr-III, which exists in nature and is relatively harmless, Cr-VI is created by industrial processes like smelting, and is made worse by acidic environments (such as those in Sudbury). (It) is particularly toxic when inhaled and can cause severe damage to the lungs, kidneys, liver and blood cells. It is a known carcinogen.”
The Blacksmith Institute ( www.blacksmithinstitute.org),a non-profit organization working to solve pollution problems in the global South, reports hexavalent chromium has caused major health problems in the areas surrounding the chromites mines of Sukinda Valley, India. Chromite overburden, which remains following ore removal, has contaminated the rivers and waterways of the region. As a result, it has caused devastating disease and illness. Researchers found that 84.75% of deaths in the mining areas and about 86% of deaths in the nearby industrial villages resulted from disease. Villages within one kilometre of the mine sites were most affected, with about 24% of inhabitants suffering from pollution-induced diseases.
A July 23 report by John Pickrell, which appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website ( www.abc.net.au), listed Sukinda Valley as the eighth most polluted place on Earth. Some of the illnesses from which miners suffer include gastrointestinal bleeding, tuberculosis, asthma, infertility and birth defects. It is important to note that many of the Sukinda Valley mines operate without any kind of environmental management, and that water treatment facilities in the region are very limited.
The chromite project is not Sudbury’s first foray into smelting and Lesher believes it will be as safe as the city’s other mining operations.
“Sulfur dioxide is highly toxic and we have had sulfide smelting in Sudbury for 100 years,” he says.
FIRST NATIONS CONCERNS
The Ring of Fire is a $3.3-billion project, with the potential to position Canada among the world’s top chromite producers. There are, however, difficulties that stakeholders must first address.
“The Ring of Fire mineral belt is located in a remote area of Ontario’s Far North, which is only currently accessible via air,” writes Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM), in an email. “As such, transmission, transportation corridors, broadband and other infrastructure considerations are under evaluation with a view not only to assisting project proponents in advancing their proposed developments, but also ensuring remote communities that may be affected by these proposed developments have access to the infrastructure they need to benefit most from the Ring of Fire initiative.”
First Nations communities in the vicinity are understandably concerned about the impacts of the project. Elijah Moonias, chief of Marten Falls First Nation, which sits about 290 miles northeast of Thunder Bay at the junction of the Ogoki and Albany Rivers, says he is still undecided about the project. He has little faith in the environmental assessments currently underway and is concerned the region’s landscapes could be irreparably altered by the project.
“At this point I am neither opposed nor in favour,” Moonias says. “I am concerned with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has no track record at all in the tar sands extraction. The fresh water in that region will be a chemical soup in 40 years.
“With the arrogance of the federal Conservatives and their fast-tracking of this already-deadly exercise, it is unlikely there will be satisfaction. I want to be satisfied that this Ring of Fire will not be another tar sands.”
Moonias is gravely concerned about the presence of hexavalent chromium, which he says forms a “deadly acid” when mixed with water. David Peerla, a spokesperson for Neskatanga First Nation, on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake, echoes Moonias’ concerns.
“We all agree it is important to get the environmental assessment (EA) of this massive project in the heart of our homeland in the Attawapiskat watershed right,” Peerla says. “Without a proper EA, no one knows or can know what the impacts of the project are predicted to be. How can we make a decision on the project before we have had a proper EA?”
For the rest of this article, please go to the Sudbury Star website: http://www.thesudburystar.com/2012/08/13/power-needs-dictate-plant-location