‘We only get one shot at doing it right’
There’s strength in numbers. That’s one of the ideas underpinning a newly-formed citizens’ group examining all aspects of the chromite smelting facility Cliffs Natural Resources wants to build near Capreol.
“People together are stronger than individuals,” Capreol resident Bob Johnson said. “The public have come here and said ‘Yes, these are the concerns that we have.’ They can’t be ignored, but individuals can be ignored.’” About 50 people gathered at the Capreol Millenium Centre Oct. 15 to learn about the new committee.
In the end, the group unanimously passed a mission statement to focus on ensuring the Cliffs plant, if it materializes, is safe and healthy and provides a net benefit for its workers, the surrounding communities and the environment.
Former Sudbury East NDP MPP and Capreol resident Elie Martel was elected chair of the committee, with Johnson as secretary and Black Cat owner and former Laurentian University professor John Rutherford as treasurer.
Martel said the idea for the committee started after he did a media interview where he talked about his concerns about the project’s potential environmental impact. He immediately started receiving phone calls from concerned citizens. Then he realized that the environmental assessment process for the project is already underway.
“The more people we can get with skills and background, the better it will be, to make sure that when it’s built, if it’s built, it’s safe,” Martel said.
“We want it to be safe for the workers, safe for the community and beneficial to the community. That’s what it’s all about.”
He said his next step is to write a letter to Cliffs and to the Ministry of the Environment, telling them the committee has been formed, and asking them to keep the group informed.
They group also plans to be a presence at an upcoming Cliffs open house, which will take place Oct. 25 from 4-8 p.m. at the Capreol Community Centre.
One of the committee’s members is Homer Seguin, who has been advocating for mining health and safety in the city for the past 60 years.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve volunteered for the committee,” he told those gathered at the meeting.
“I’m not in it to be against bringing Cliffs. In this society, we need industry, we need jobs. So I’m in favour of them coming, conditional upon it being safe.”
Seguin, though, reminded the group of some of Sudbury’s history, including the 300 people who died from lung and nasal cancers after working in Inco’s sintering plant.
The community still doesn’t know what kind of emissions and byproducts will result from the Cliffs project, he said.
“I know there’s nickel in that ore, probably sulphur, and maybe lead,” Seguin said.
“With nickel, you know what the problem is here. We killed hundreds of workers from nickel exposures because it’s a carcinogen. Chromium is a carcinogen too.”
He advised the group to push for a state-of-the-art smelter so there will never be any question about it failing to meet government guidelines.
Several people at the meeting said they aren’t sure the Cliffs project should go ahead, jobs or no jobs.
Fred Twilley, who ran in Sudbury as the Green Party candidate in the last federal election, is one of those people.
“There are very serious questions as to whether or not it is a net benefit to Sudbury,” he said.
His concerns with the project include the heavy electricity price subsidies the government may give to the company, potentially toxic emissions and the idea that Cliffs might threaten to pull out to get regulatory concessions from the government.
“I’m going to volunteer and try and be a watchdog,” Twilley said. “I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen to this community, and whether jobs today is going to mean an awful lot of pain and suffering in the future.”
Judy Sumner, a retired Cambrian College chemistry instructor, gave those at the meeting something of a chemistry lesson.
“There’s some kinds of chromium that tend to be fairly safe,” she said.
“Chromium 3 is present in nature. The kind of chromium that is really, really dangerous is Chromium 6.
“You take Chromium 3 and you zap off a few electrons through oxidization, and you make Chromium 6. Then suddenly you have a monster. You have something that’s highly toxic and highly carcinogenic.”
American activist Erin Brockovich is famous for launching class action lawsuits on behalf of communities who have been affected by Chromium 6, Sumner said. Brockovich’s story was made into a 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts.
Sumner, who lives in Capreol, said her fellow residents are happy about the prospect of jobs coming to town and their property values going up, but they’re also nervous about potential environmental damage.
Capreol resident Karen Bringleson said she’s been worried about the environmental damage the project could do for awhile, and she’s glad to see she’s not the only one.
“I don’t think the Cliffs project is a bad thing if it’s done safely,” she said. “I know we need jobs, but we only get one shot at doing it right.”
Those interested in joining the committee are asked to contact Martel at 705-858-2682, Johnson at 705-858-2258 or Rutherford at 705-673-6718.