Less moon, more scapes
April 24, 2019 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The Sudbury Effect: Lessons from a regreened city (CBC Ideas) discusses ongoing attempts to undo the damage from over a century of mining and smelting activity in and around Sudbury, Ontario. A combination of extensive scientific study, government regulation, citizen activism, and some eventual, begrudging industry cooperation would result in long-term remediation efforts that have transformed Sudbury's once-notorious "moonscape" and recognized as a success story around the world. Watch 32 years of Sudbury re-greening from space with Google Timelapse.

Sudbury's landmark Inco (now Vale) Superstack is scheduled to be decommissioned and demolished in 2020. It was brought online in 1972, and while it served to reduce levels of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants in the immediate area, it just sent them elsewhere via prevailing winds.

Aerial footage of the superstack and surrounding area.

Additional background:

Air Quality Trends in the Sudbury Area 1953 – 2002 (pdf)

Land Reclamation Program 1978 - 1984 Regional, Municipality of Sudbury, Vegetation Enhancement Technical Advisory Committee (pdf)

Video: The Greening of Sudbury (TV Ontario, 1999)

The Arrogance of Inco (By Val Ross, Canadian Business, May 1979, Part 1 of 4)

The Arrogance of Inco (Part 2 of 4)

The Arrogance of Inco (Part 3 of 4)

The Arrogance of Inco (Part 3 of 4)
posted by mandolin conspiracy (11 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
And no, Apollo astronauts didn't train in Sudbury because of its appearance - it had everything to do with the geology in the region.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:30 PM on April 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


My partner grew up in Sudbury - so, I have had the opportunity to visit a few times over the last couple years - the greenery and the rocky terrain is very beautiful.

So much so, that we have looked at purchasing up there - despite the winters. However, while we have occasionally found a few amazing real estate deals on properties - further research would often show they were in areas with known contamination by tailings or other mining/smelting processes.
posted by jkaczor at 2:39 PM on April 24, 2019


And no, Apollo astronauts didn't train in Sudbury because of its appearance - it had everything to do with the geology in the region.

It was really because they wanted to makeout in their cars while watching the slag dumping.
posted by srboisvert at 4:19 PM on April 24, 2019 [5 favorites]


On a family road trip as a young geology geek, I was really looking forward to driving through Sudbury. I'd read all about the Sudbury Structure and planned to ask my parents to pull over somewhere so I could grab some rock samples for my collection. I'd even managed to talk my 6 year old sister into the idea that it would be a lot of fun.

As we approached the area, the beautiful forest we'd been traveling through for hours began to thin out. The trees that did grow had a stunted appearance. It wasn't exactly a moonscape, but seeing the visible effects of mining and smelting was pretty depressing and it kind of killed my desire to go out exploring.

I guess regreening had already been underway for a while at that point, but I'm glad to see it's made so much more progress now.
posted by theory at 12:28 AM on April 25, 2019


The context of the discussion around Sudbury and the consequences of mining nickel for 130 years is so bizarre to me - nobody would live in Sudbury if it wasn’t for nickel mining. It never would have existed. The only things that employ anyone there now are mining, mining services, mining research, and an insane amount of government employees. To talk about the “blight” as some sort of externality to that central fact is missing the forest for the trees. “Undoing the damage” implies somehow that everyone didn’t know the score. The “damage” was the whole reason anyone was there in the first place! You can’t mine or smelt metals without transforming/polluting to some degree the surrounding area.

If modern standards of mining, processing, smelting, waste disposal and remediation were in place in the 1930’s/1940’s, again, Sudbury would again never have existed because nickel mining would not have been economic. It’s barely economic in Sudbury today.

It’s nice and good that stuff is getting cleaned up, but it’s not as if a big bad mining company set up shop and ruined Sudbury. It was always effectively a company town. The population today would be a fraction of what it is if the government didn’t subsidize the city in the face of the declining importance of mining. To prop up what maybe should have been a boom/bust town (like many others in Canada) for political reasons and then decry the “damage” of mining is disingenuous. In other words, if everyone had left Sudbury when the glory days were over, the population would be about 20k, no one would ever visit, and no one would care about the landscape. The perils of a tertiary, resource extraction-based economy and all that (see Kirkland Lake, Val D’Or, Fort Mac, etc).

So now after the government decided that we should all collectively subsidize Sudbury to maintain its population and diversify away from mining, we are all indirectly paying for the cleanup, some/most of which would have been totally unnecessary (rehab of pits/mined areas naturally would have taken 100 years or 200, whatever, instead of 20, who cares in the middle of nowhere Ontario, I can show you 100 similar sites all over Quebec, On, BC, etc). When Vale “pays” for clean up, most of what they’re doing is reducing their tax bill/royalties payable. Good I guess?
posted by Mirax at 5:00 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


who cares in the middle of nowhere Ontario

Can we not, please?

A short list of people who might care include the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, on whose land the city of Sudbury now sits. The city may be inside the original Whitefish Lake Reserve boundaries which — quelle surprise — the Canadian government has conveniently never quite got round to surveying (despite many requests from the First Nation) seemingly because of a note from the Commissioner in 1883 that states:
… Under these circumstances I am to suggest if it would not be advisable to instruct Mr. Abrey not to make the Survey at present … whereas if Mr. Abrey makes a Survey with the present indefinite information as given in the Treaty, complications might arise owing to the influx of settlers along the C.P. Railway. This Department does not question the existence of a Reserve there but merely suggests the above as a mode of avoiding a possible clashing of two surveys.  (source; pdf, quite large: actual text on p.16; emphasis mine. Report is a bit distressing, in some places even suggesting that First Nations folks didn't actually know how big miles were)
In other words: “Won't somebody think of the white people?”

The treaty text is abundantly clear that the Whitefish Lake Reserve is “a tract of land … contained between two rivers called Whitefish River and Wanabitaseke seven miles inland.”. That's almost all of Greater Sudbury, and half of Killarney Provincial Park too.

I don't know what has happened with the First Nation's trillion dollar lawsuit (nb: ridiculous pro-mining link) but post Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot'in Nation, there's gotta be a metric fucktonne of caring going on.

[I've written here before about Sudbury and how it almost became the wind energy capital of Canada by statistical mistake. If you can find the proceedings of the 2009 CanWEA conference (I can't, and I was likely a director of CanWEA at the time) the paper Resource Assessment Lessons Learned from Sudbury by Tanentzap, Taylor, Yan and Salmon contains the amusing details. In short, long term weather records indicated crazy winds in Sudbury, but recent measurements said otherwise. The older records included the years when there were no trees and thus high winds from the lack of roughness from living trees. Go trees! Not-go billion dollar investments in potentially disappointing wind projects!]
posted by scruss at 8:29 AM on April 25, 2019 [6 favorites]


I have driven through Sudbury every summer since the early 70's and back then it was very eerie. It has come a long way, and I'm glad. Science North is amazing, BTW! Thanks for the post!
posted by DesbaratsDays at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


It’s nice and good that stuff is getting cleaned up, but it’s not as if a big bad mining company set up shop and ruined Sudbury. It was always effectively a company town.

Yeah, a town that exists in or on water, air, and soil that people need to live. And air that goes elsewhere.

(rehab of pits/mined areas naturally would have taken 100 years or 200, whatever, instead of 20

It's not pit rehab, for the most part. If you've visited the headframe operations at Garson, Stobie (currently on care and maintenance), Copper Cliff, etc., (I have seen these in person) there's little surface activity. The Copper Cliff complex surface activity is almost all related to milling and smelting.

Because of geology that's been mined, those shafts and stopes aren't going anywhere - so pit rehabilitation isn't the main issue and never has been for the purposes of what's being discussed in the FPP.

The remediation that's occurring is rehab from smelting emissions - starting with the original open-pit roasting operations of the early 20th century (and the concomitant deforestation for fuel feedstock - wood - for said roasting) that produced vast clouds of SO2-laden smoke that just rolled along near ground level. Later smelting operations involved blast furnaces and stacks, and then the Superstack was (more or less) an effort to let the wind take emissions elsewhere. Problem solved, right?

No.

Flash forward to today, and Vale can actually capture most of the sulphur emitted during the smelting process. Amazing, right? But would they be doing it if they weren't forced to change over time? Probably not. They'll always argue that this will never be "economic." But what it does is point out to people fighting pollution in their own communities (where Vale and other mining companies are doing business far less responsibly than they do in Canada) that there are better ways to do it and it's not a case of, "Oh well, you want extraction jobs? Well then, this is the environmental and human cost of doing it."

And for the record, SO2 emissions didn't fall under regulation in Ontario until 1978, long after their link to acid rain was well established. It took a big public fight for that to happen, and there were plenty of people in and around Sudbury who were ringing alarm bells about this. People who, on the one hand, relied on the mining industry and its spinoff jobs for their livelihood (like my grandfather, who is the last person in the world I would have called "an environmentalist") but who also understood what a lake killed by acid rain - along with the fish they used to catch there - meant in the bigger picture.

Finally, if you actually understood how infrastructure and economics of Northern Ontario actually work, you'd know that Sudbury needs to continue to exist as a regional centre for health care and education and some other things, and that's even before addressing the First Nations claims on that land that scruss addresses above.

All other things being equal, a major factor in the decline in direct employment (if we think about it in terms of jobs vs. tonnes per day, i.e., actual production) from mining operations in Sudbury is due primarily to automation.

And sure, putting the CRA tax processing centre there was a political sop of some kind. I'm sure that lots of other places in Canada could have benefited from it coming to their town, but for various political reasons it was plunked down in Sudbury. So what?

big bad mining companies

Well, my grandfather had to spend decades fighting with Inco (now Vale) and Worker's Comp (now WSIB) over injuries he sustained on an Inco job site, so YMMV, but some of us have a clear-eyed view into the degree to which the company and its shareholders were happy to reap profits even as bodies were being broken. That was an "economic" process, to be sure.

You can’t mine or smelt metals without transforming/polluting to some degree the surrounding area.

No argument there. But Norilsk is not a model of production and emissions to aspire to.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:05 PM on April 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


The only things that employ anyone there now are mining, mining services, mining research, and an insane amount of government employees.

As someone from there, who still has family there, while that might have been true at one point I can assure you that this really hasn't been the case for a long time. As mandolin conspiracy says (QFT): "if you actually understood how infrastructure and economics of Northern Ontario actually work..." Sudbury gets dumped on plenty by people down south who don't get it or think they know better, but trust me, it is not Fort Mac or Thompson, MB.

It is a bit old but this paper Sudbury: A Historical Case Study of Multiple Urban-Economic Transformation by OIVA SAARINEN covers the economic history of Sudbury, in case anyone is interested and echoes some of the above links.

When I was a kid, so late 70s, I remember the acid rain would discolour stucco & paint on houses. Us kids would always get roped into repainting or fixing it during summer vacations. I forget when that stopped being as big of an issue (late 80s / early 90s?) but I recall a summer that my grandmother let me go swimming at Ella Lake with the leeches instead of painting and recognised that things had changed. Regarding trees, if you hike up in the hills (like around Lake Wanapitei), you can still find the decaying remains of the big oaks that the pollution destroyed. Sadly you're not seeing as many replacements for oaks during the regreening process but still nice to see the hills green rather than the moonscape of my childhood.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:41 PM on April 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


you'd know that Sudbury needs to continue to exist as a regional centre for health care and education and some other things

You guys miss my point. I'm not trashing Sudbury, or absolving mining companies of any responsibility. I'm not suggesting that there's anything else to do now - it is what it is. Continue to exist? Of course it will. I'm suggesting that there was no particular need for the Sudbury area to become that centre of Northern Ontario service delivery, etc. Why not North Bay? Or the Sault? Or Elliot Lake? There was a conscious decision on the part of every level of government to - as you say - to make Sudbury that regional centre for health, CRA, government services, whatever. Why do that in one of the most blighted parts of the country? Why put effectively subsidized jobs in a place that's contaminated, that comes with health risks, etc? I'm drawing distinction between people who were there for specifically mining and mining activities almost exclusively until the 70's/80's, and everyone else who came after as a result of those decisions.

If the decision was made to put all those services in North Bay instead, Sudbury would have a population of what, 20k? And North Bay would be at 120k. Obviously oversimplifying, but you get my point. And then the environmental issues in Sudbury could be dealt with in a very different way. My criticism is not of current plans/work done to remediate, it's of the decisions made to turn Sudbury into something it probably shouldn't have become.

As someone from there, who still has family there, while that might have been true at one point I can assure you that this really hasn't been the case for a long time.

Ummm. Top 10 employers: Vale (mining), provincial government agency, federal government agency, muncipal government, university (government), school board (government), provincial government agencies, school board (government), Xstrata (mining). QFT.

When I was a kid, so late 70s, I remember the acid rain would discolour stucco & paint on houses. Us kids would always get roped into repainting or fixing it during summer vacations.

My essential point is that there never should have been any kids there (or very few). There aren't any kids or families at fly-in-fly-out camps. And there still shouldn't be. It was a massive industrial site that was forced into become a government services centre for no particularly good reason.
posted by Mirax at 7:21 AM on April 26, 2019


The regreening of Sudbury was amazing to live through. I don't recognize some of the places driving in. and although clearly much of the land was contaminated, Ramsey Lake was always great to swim in. Also Sudbury has a large francoontarien population so I imagine that played a large role (rightly so) in making Sudbury the centre of the north.

I haven't had a chance to listen to the linked Ideas program yet. Keith Winterhalder was the prof who pioneered the use of lime in the regressing process. I can't wait to delve into all of these links.
posted by biggreenplant at 5:16 AM on April 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


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