MAC: Mines and Communities

The World Unites Against Inco

Published by MAC on 2003-09-15

The World Unites Against Inco

September 2003

by Vicky Hammond, Current magazine, Canada

On October 7th [postponed from September 25], Newfoundlanders will join forces with residents of Port Colborne, Ontario, along with other communities around the world in a global day of action against the multinational mining giant, Inco. Unions, environmentalists and human rights activists are organizing demonstrations, film screenings, and teach-ins, in Indonesia, New Caledonia and Guatemala, as well as here in Canada, to educate their communities on Inco’s history of environmental and human rights abuses. Two Port Colborne residents visited Newfoundland this week to share their Inco experiences, and to help co-ordinate local and national activities, expected to be announced early in the month.

In Port Colborne, citizens have been forced to mount a class-action lawsuit against Inco, which continues to deny its responsibility for toxic nickel and lead contamination both inside and outside residents’ homes. The company has been accused of hiding test results revealing high levels of cancer-causing nickel in the air and soil.

Eric Gillespie, a lawyer representing Port Colborne residents in the class action suit, stresses the importance of a process for public awareness on environmental and health issues, which he finds lacking with regard to the proposed Argentia processing facility. Diana Wiggins warns residents of Argentia, “you don’t want to wait ten or fifteen years to find out that you could have prevented environmental problems in your own community.”

Inco has left a trail of environmental destruction and human suffering here in Canada, and around the world. According to analysis of Inco’s owned reported figures by Environmental Defense Canada, Inco is Canada’s top mining polluter by a very wide margin.

In Sudbury, numerous environmental emergencies have taken place over the years, including sulphur dioxide releases from the Copper Cliff Smelter Complex in 1995, ’97 and ’98. And after years of labour strife and steadily declining employment, Sudbury’s Inco workers are only now on the verge of a tentative agreement with the company, after yet another strike to save what’s left of their pensions and seniority rights and to defend health-care benefits for 10,000 retirees and survivors.

The most heartfelt protests on the 25th will take place in areas where Inco has really made itself at home. In Guatemala, for example, many peasant families still have bitter and bloody memories of the mining company. Inco’s profitable relationship with murderous Guatemalan regimes over many years, following the U.S. ­backed coup of 1954, is surely one of the darkest stains on their relationship.

During the Azurdia dictatorship in the early 60’s, Inco’s Guatemalan mining company, Exmibal, secured preferential tax status and wrote its own mining code into the Guatemalan constitution. They then offered the military regime 30% of its outstanding common shares to seal the deal.

In 1966, when peasant rebellion began to flourish in the hills around the Exmibal facilities at Lake Izabal, the regime massacred more than 3000 peasants, at least 2,420 of whom were non-combatant hill farmers. Another 3000 were murdered during the “pacification campaign” of 1968. Guatemala was made even safer for foreign investment from 1969 to 1971 when anti-Exmibal campaigners, made up largely of academics, lawyers, cientists and trade unionists were harassed, murdered and disappeared by the obliging military regime.

In 1978, a hundred Q’eqchi Indians were also massacred when they protested Exmibal’s expropriation of their lands. On the same day as the massacre, protestors reported being fired on by men in Exmibal trucks.

Inco’s cozy relationship with former Indonesian dictator Suharto also resulted in the takeover of indigenous lands. Today, on the island of Sualwesi, indigenous communities have been forcibly displaced, without ompensation, by PT Inco’s mining and dam-building activities. The company golf course now sits where the communities’ fruit trees and gardens once grew. In Soroako, respiratory diseases are rampant due to a processing plant which has degraded air quality. Soil and water pollution threatens the entire ecosystem there.

47% of Inco’s contract-of-work area in Indonesia is located in protected forest reserves. Though Indonesia’s Forestry Act 41 bans open-pit mining in protected forests, the Indonesian government backed down to multinational mining companies, including PT Inco, after they threatened international arbitration if the ban was enforced. New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia with 30% of the world’s known nickel reserves, has also attracted Inco’s attention. In the year 2000, the people of New Caledonia launched a campaign to have their coral reef system included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Meanwhile, Inco is going ahead with plans to develop a huge mine in the Goro area and dump the tailings underwater. The mine waste will flow into a coral lagoon.

How will Newfoundland fare in our dealings with this intensely competitive and battle-hardened company, with its legions of clever lawyers? We know almost nothing concrete about the deal our government signed, as it has been deemed confidential business information. The first phase of the mining operation will be an open pit. Concerns have been raised about fine, heavy-metal dust being carried from the site far over the open landscape by the wind. Shipping from coastal Labrador in the winter could also be problematic, both for transport ships as well as the coastal people who use the ice as a transportation route and hunting territory.

Inco’s Web site states that a hydrometallurgical (hydromet) processing demonstration plant at Argentia will be ready in 2006, when the mill in Voisey’s Bay starts producing concentrate. We are told that the hydromet process is safer and cleaner than smelting technologies, though the process remains untested.

The Web site goes on to say that a commercial hydromet processing plant will be commissioned at Argentia in late 2011, unless Inco is unable, for “technical or economic reasons”, to build it, in which case they will build a conventional refinery, (their original preference), which poses a whole range of other environmental concerns. On the subjects of environment and health, the Web site of Inco’s subsidiary, Voisey’s Bay Nickel, guarantees that it will apply “appropriate” pollution prevention principles and environmental and health and safety risk management practices. It states that it will comply with existing environmental legislation, but in the absence of legislation, will apply “cost-effective best management practices.” Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there is such an absence in many areas.

The breezy statement that an Environmental Impact Assessment will be done before the construction of the commercial plant in 2011 glosses over the fact that the demo plant, which will have already been in operation for 5 years by 2011, will not be assessed.

Listen to the villagers of Sulawesi, the hill-farmers of Guatemala, the hungry pensioners in Sudbury, and the sick kids in Port Colborne. They know how Inco does business. Inco’s policy over the years has been to make a mess, deny responsibility if possible, fight charges in court if not and as a last resort, pay a pittance in fines as a cost of doing business. There is no reason to expect special treatment for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Inco will only do what it is forced to do by legislation and by public opinion that is wide-spread enough to affect its share prices. If we want an Environmental Impact Assessment for the hydromet demo project we will have to demand it. If we want the best in environmental protection for our lands and safe working conditions for our people we will have to insist on them. If we want Inco to pay a fair share of corporate taxes and royalties on the resources they use we will have to make it clear that we will accept no less.

Inco has the expertise and experience, and the money, to do things right.Our government has the responsibility to protect public health and the environment. But it is ultimately up to us to make sure that these things happen.

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