The dirty secrets behind Sudbury’s regreening

The northern Ontario hub is held up as a model of cleansing a town polluted by mining. But industry has a stake in this claim

Joan Kuyek is co-founder of MiningWatch Canada and the author of Unearthing Justice.

A recent op-ed in The Narwhal said that Sudbury, Ont. offered proof that a “[post-mining] re-greening road map exists,” and indicated that Sudbury provides a model to the world. However, any community attempting to replicate the Sudbury model has to know its dirty, and often untold, stories.

The mines and smelters in Sudbury — Canada’s largest mining community — were built on and destroyed the lands of the Atikameksheng Anishinaabek. The boundaries of their tiny reserve were deliberately drawn to exclude mineral rich lands. Although over $1 trillion has been taken from the Sudbury region, the First Nation has received no compensation and no apology.

Over more than 100 years of smelter operations, the major pollutant has been sulphur dioxide, as well as lead, nickel, cadmium, copper, arsenic, cobalt and selenium. The contamination spread over 80,000 hectares. It has taken more than 50 years, since the early days of organizing around acid rain abatement, to get the federal and provincial regulations in place to effectively limit these emissions. Despite the urgent need for the regulation, the federal Base Metal Smelter Regulation was fought ferociously by Inco and Falconbridge (now Vale and Glencore).

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The regulations have effectively forced the mining companies to develop and implement the technologies needed to reduce emissions. Where the companies felt it cost too much — such as in Thompson, Man. — they have closed their smelters

For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, the same companies avoided reporting toxins in their waste rock piles and tailings impoundments to the National Pollutant Release Inventory until a MiningWatch Canada court case forced them to comply with the law. 

The regreening of 3,400 hectares of land across Sudbury (collectively the size of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island) was made possible by the brilliant work of university-based scientists, by community volunteers, by a few dedicated mining company staff and by government subsidies. However, one of the mining companies’ largest investments in the project was a $15-million Health Risk Assessment to make the results of a 2001 provincial soil sampling study more palatable to a concerned public. The risk assessment was strongly criticized by unions and the local community for failing to look at cumulative impacts of multiple toxins over time, especially for workers, and for failing to validate many of its findings. For example, it said that 400 parts per million of lead in soil was acceptable, when the federal and provincial limits are 150 and 200 parts per million, respectively.

Despite the regreening of the area, Sudbury is threatened by four gigantic tailings impoundments filled with water-saturated, toxic mine waste. The largest, Vale’s Copper Cliff Central Tailings Area, is 3,500 hectares in size — larger than the area regreened over a 40-year period. The tailings facility is surrounded by dams rated “high risk” by the Canadian Dam Association, due to their close proximity to residences, and that are similar to the Vale dams that collapsed in Brazil in 2015, killing 270 people. Were one of the Sudbury dams to collapse, it would be catastrophic. These dams will have to be monitored in perpetuity. Vale, however, has been allowed by the province to self-assure against the closure of its mines and smelters, so is not required to post any kind of bond or security to cover the clean-up. 

In February 2021, Laurentian University in Sudbury declared insolvency, and programs such as Indigenous studies, environmental science, labour studies, and women and gender studies were abruptly terminated. What survived are programs heavily subsidized by the mining industry, such as the Harquail School of Earth Sciences ($10 million from the president and CEO of the Franco-Nevada Corporation), the Goodman School of Mines ($20 million from the Dundee Corporation’s Goodman family) and the Bharti School of Engineering ($10 million from the chairman and CEO of Forbes & Manhattan). As the university seeks better financial footing, there is community concern the institution will sell off some of the undeveloped forest it owns around Lake Nepahwin and Lake Laurentian — greenspace created through the regreening process.

The promotion of the Sudbury “regreening success” will get stronger as the mining industry smells a new boom: critical minerals for new green infrastructure; miner-less mining; financialization of mine assets. The industry wants to subvert obstacles to their expansion like critical thinkers and research that does not support their agenda. 

Hiding the continuing and massive environmental and social costs of the mineral industry behind the regreening story is essential to their plans.

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