Digging Through the Sudbury Soils Study – By Bill Bradley

Copper Cliff Roast Yards - CGS Libraries and Museums Historical DatabaseNorthern Life, Greater Sudbury’s community newspaper, gave Republic of Mining.com permission to post Bill Bradley’s article. www.northernlife.ca

A Primer on the Study, the Process and the Players Involved

(First instalment of a four-part series)

There is some excellent information on the history of mining activities in the Sudbury area in the first background study of the Sudbury Soil Study finished in January 2008, that can be downloaded at their website. Visit Sudbury Soils Study. Copies for public viewing are available at public libraries and post-secondary institutions.

Here are some highlights and quotes from the study that indicate the extent of the devastation of the Sudbury area:

  • Roasting yards were an early method of separating valuable minerals from rock. The first roast yard, where crushed ore from pits was piled on beds of cordwood, was built in Dec. 1886. Between 1890 and 1930, 28 million tonnes of ore was smelted primarily in the open. After 1920, ore was mechanically smelted indoors. Until the process stopped in 1929, “they released about 10 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide at ground level, killing plants and acidifying soils…open-bed roasting was a cheap but ultimately inefficient method, as it allowed some of the nickel and copper to be washed into the soil by rains.” In 1916 one former resident of the community near the O’Donnell roast yard said there were days when “I could not see my hand in front of my face.”
  • The wartime surge in nickel production in 1916, “increased the volume of noxious gases that wafted from the roast beds into the gardens and fields of the Sudbury basin.” Agriculture in the Blezard Valley was being smothered by the 600,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide emitted annually by the nickel companies. “In 1916, after successive years of ruined crops, the farmers had had enough, forcing Canadian Copper to pay $137,398 for smoke damages in the year ending March 31, 1916.”
  • As the landscape deteriorated around the smelters, effects of emissions could no longer be ignored. Early studies dealt with sulphur dioxide emissions. “Not until the late 1960s did the focus expand to include metal contamination and acidification of the soils. At that time, studies by local foresters and ecologists showed that soil acidity and concentrations of copper and nickel were elevated in the same areas where sulphur dioxide damage had been measured.”
  • A  secret 1974 federal government document titled “The Sudbury Pollution Problem: Socio-Economic Background” concluded the damage from emissions would cost Sudbury approximately $465,850,000 to human health, vegetation and property values annually. “Government has been extremely lenient with Inco and Falconbridge. Historically there have been no prosecutions under applicable environmental legislation, and from 1924-1970, there was a curtailment of a citizen’s right to sue for environmental damages, and there has been a lack of government sponsored research on the damage caused by the copper-nickel smelters.”
  • Public and regulatory interest in contaminated soils has increased recently with the publication of the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s Guideline for Use at Contaminated Sites in Ontario in 1997. In 2001, MOE released a report entitled Metals in Soil and Vegetation in the Sudbury Area and historical data. That report indicated that the concentrations of nickel, copper, cobalt and arsenic were elevated in the three historic smelting areas of Copper Cliff, Coniston and Falconbridge.

Victoria Mines Roast Yard - West of SudburyThat report, including the results of approximately 8,400 soil samples, prompted a need for further testing and a basis for identifying the chemicals of concern and communities of interest for the Sudbury Soil Study. Both a human health risk assessment and an ecological risk assessment were recommended.

From the Players

After $10 million and almost seven years, a multi-stakeholder team said this month they completed the most comprehensive study in Canada for evaluating the human and ecological risks associated with six chemicals of
concern, including nickel and lead. Vale Inco paid $7 million and Xstrata contributed $3 million. City leaders were
pleased. “It (the study) has been very transparent,” said Mayor John Rodriguez. “The citizens had a voice at the table. Franco Mariotti, (the independent process observer) protected their interests. Then it (the study) was peer
reviewed. It is the most extensive soils study done in North America,” said Rodriguez. “I accept these results,” said Sudbury and District Medical Officer of Health, Doctor Penny Sutcliffe. She did say there were localized areas of concern with lead and nickel.

“Property owners who had higher levels of lead and nickel were identified and contacted by our officials in 2005 and given recommendations on how to reduce the risk for their children or pregnant women. We will do another follow-up with them and embark on a community wide education campaign.” Elevated nickel emissions were linked to dust blowing from Vale sites in Copper Cliff.
Victoria Mines roast yard, west of Sudbury
Both major mining companies are undertaking to reduce their emissions of chemicals of concern.

From the Consultants

The following was reported by Chris Wren, director of the SARA Group of consultants responsible for the study:

  • Based on current conditions in the Sudbury area, the study predicted little risk of health effects on Sudbury residents associated with metals in the environment.
  • There were no unacceptable health risks predicted for exposure to four of the six chemicals of concern studied: arsenic, copper, cobalt and selenium.
  • The risk calculated for typical exposures to lead in the environment throughout the Greater Sudbury area are within acceptable benchmarks for protection of human health. However, levels of lead in some samples indicate a potential risk of health effects for young children in Copper Cliff, Coniston, Falconbridge and Sudbury Centre. But levels of lead in soil and dust in Sudbury are similar to levels in other older urban communities in Ontario.
  • The study calculated a minimal risk of respiratory inflammation from lifetime exposures (70 years) to airborne nickel in two areas: Copper Cliff and the western portion of Sudbury Centre. Respiratory inflammation has been linked to the promotion of respiratory cancer caused by other agents. But it is unlikely any additional respiratory cancers will result from nickel exposure over the 70-year lifespan considered in the risk assessment.
  • Anglers, hunters and First Nations people who may consume more local fish andnwild game are at no risk of health effects due to metals in the environment than the general population. Nine property owners in Copper Cliff, Coniston, Falconbridge and the city core had levels of lead above 400 parts per million. Some areas in Copper Cliff and the city’s west end showed nickel readings above a regulated benchmark.

The Process

According to Science North biologist Franco Mariotti, process observer for the Sudbury Soil Study, since January 2002, the originators of the study, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) and the two mining companies wanted a different process to what previously occurred in Port Colbourne. Similar issues of contaminated soils from
Vale Inco’s refinery there have been hotly contested and are still in the courts. “The process in Port Colbourne was company driven, though they did listen to a public advisory body,” said Mariotti in a recent interview.

Here they wanted a better method of making decisions to avoid the conflicts that erupted, he added. “So MOE and the companies, who agreed to fund the study, reached out to get other participants like the municipality on the technical committee, the main decision making body.”

In the beginning, as the technical committee struggled to decide how to make decisions on the terms of reference for the study and the structure of the study, it was hotly debated whether to decide by vote, majority win, or by consensus, said Mariotti. “Ultimately they chose to use the consensus model — where everyone agrees. But I don’t think that was clearly stated to the public at the time so there could be a lingering sense in the community that the decisions were skewed to favour the mining companies. I consider I was to blame for that by not articulating that shift in decision-making in my early newsletters.”

Mariotti does consider the process used by the technical committee to be one of the most transparent in North America. “Take the decision to have the study peer-reviewed by some of the top experts anywhere. First a company with expertise in environmental science was hired to then hire the peer review panel so that is considered an arms length process though the original funding is from the mining companies.”

Would he agree with Joan Kuyek, national co-ordinator with Mining Watch Canada, a non-profit watchdog group based in Ottawa, to extend the public review period? “I think that, if some members of the community really need more time, they should get it. We did decide to extend the public review period from 35 days to several months.

In a poll on www.northernlife.ca more than 68 per cent of respondents said they were not assured by the results of the study while less than 32 per cent said they were assured.