Smelter Fumes, Local Interests, and Political Contestation in Sudbury, Ontario, during the 1910s – by Don Munton and Owen Temby (Urban History Review – June 2016)

During the second half of the 1910s the problem of sulphur smoke in Sudbury, Ontario, pitted farmers against the mining-smelting industry that comprised the dominant sector of the local economy. Increased demand for nickel from World War I had resulted in expanded activities in the nearby Copper Cliff and O’Donnell roast
yards, which in turn produced more smoke and destroyed crops.

Local business leaders, represented by the Sudbury Board of Trade, sought to balance the needs of the agriculture and mining-smelting sectors and facilitate their coexistence in the region. Among the measures pursued, farmers and some Board of Trade members turned to nuisance litigation, with the objective of obtaining monetary awards and injunctions affecting the operation of the roast yards.

While the amounts of the awards were disappointing for the farmers, the spectre of an injunction was sufficient to convince the provincial government to ban civil litigation in favour of an arbitration process accommodating industry. This article provides an account of the political activism over Sudbury’s smoke nuisance that failed to bring about emission controls, highlighting the contextual factors contributing to this failure.


The longstanding environmental consequences of the mining and smelter complex near Sudbury, Ontario, are well known. What is less well known is that the earliest years of operations there prompted an environmental protest by farmers and some of Sudbury’s most influential citizens.

The controversy began in earnest during the first decade of the twentieth century, but intensified during World War I, when a worldwide increase in demand for nickel led to higher production and, consequently, increased sulphur “smoke” pollution.

The damage to the Sudbury district’s well-established agricultural industry caused alarm among the city’s growth-promoting organizations, its local growth coalition, the Sudbury Board of Trade, and its local
newspaper, the Sudbury Journal.1

Sudbury’s civic leaders did not have the authority to control smelter emissions, nor much power to influence the polluters, but they did seek a resolution to the problem that would enable agriculture and smelting to coexist.

Concurrently, however, farmers and some members of the Board of Trade itself turned to the courts. After a series of court decisions found “smoke” damage and awarded compensation to farmers, a small flood of additional lawsuits raised the spectre of an injunction against the smelting companies. In response, the Ontario government in 1921 legislated an end to furtherlitigation and established a smelter fumes arbitration process to consider sulphur damage awards to farmers.

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