MAC: Mines and Communities

Inco Hid Emissions Problem, Papers Reveal

Published by MAC on 2006-05-18

Inco hid emissions problem, papers reveal

Farmers' complaints called 'disturbing'


Toronto Globe and Mail

18th May 2006

WELLAND, ONT. -- Inco first realized in 1946 that nickel accumulations in the soil around its Port Colborne refinery were damaging local crops, but for decades afterward it didn't want farmers seeking compensation to know, documents filed in a lawsuit show.

In a $100-million suit against Inco, members of the Augustine family claim that the company used their farm for waste disposal by failing to take effective action to collect its dust.

"Inco has permitted the emissions and has gone to some trouble to ensure that metals were emitted into the community rather than incur costs to moderate them, because it was cheaper to pay small damages to the farmers," said Augustine lawyer Linda McCaffrey, who finished yesterday introducing into evidence hundreds of internal Inco documents from the 1950s through to the 1980s.

The documents detail Inco agronomists' concerns about a growing area of nickel accumulation. "Unless dust losses from the plant are reduced it would be only a matter of time until more of the soils become useless in the area," agronomist Clare Young wrote in 1957.

The documents also make clear that Inco officials were hardnosed in negotiating down farmers' compensation claims.

Ruth Kramer came close to tears as she listened to Ms. McCaffrey read the company's view of the farmers' complaints. She remembers her father-in-law, Otto Kramer, a former Inco foreman who, as a decent, gentle man, viewed Inco agronomists as his friends. He and his brother, Edgar, feature repeatedly in the memos.

"It's extremely upsetting," Ms. Kramer said in an interview afterward. "What bothered me was that these people had worked hard to make a living from the land."

In November of 1957, Ms. Young expressed concern about the white leaf striping that's typical of nickel contamination being found in wheat on Edgar Kramer's farm.

"This is the first time that we have found wheat showing such markings and since wheat has proved more tolerant to soluble nickel than oats, it indicates a continued nickel buildup in the soil." This meant the area of nickel contamination was likely to spread "unless our loss of high nickel dust is stopped," she stated.

The company was losing large quantities of nickel and copper through its stack, an internal summary of "annual accounting metal losses" shows. From 1919 to 1981, the total comes to £149-million (approximately $313-million Canadian). In 1929 alone, £6.5-million of nickel went up in smoke; up to 1960, the annual amount was around £3.5-million. That dropped to £2.6-million in 1960 and continued to decline, to £1.8-million in 1970 and £967,926 in 1981.

In 1960, Inco installed a Cottrell dust collector. Nickel emissions continued, but at a somewhat lower level. Complaints continued as well, as the new system did nothing to reduce toxic levels of nickel in the soil.

A 1985 Inco memo notes the emissions are "largely but not exclusively pre-1960." Nickel emissions were reduced again in 1984, when electrolytic refinery of nickel ceased at Port Colborne, but the refinery still produced "utility" nickel.

The internal memos express continuing dissatisfaction about Lorne Augustine, who in 1994 launched the suit that is being pursued by his sons after his death in 1987. News that a group of farmers, including Mr. Augustine, were contemplating legal action in the late 1950s to force Inco to clean up its emissions is described as "disturbing."

In 1962, Ms. Young recorded a discussion about increased emission-control options with another Inco official but dismissed them as "fairly expensive and not too practical."
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