MAC: Mines and Communities

Inco faces 'dirt bag' protest at meeting

Published by MAC on 2003-04-17

Inco faces 'dirt bag' protest at meeting

Residents push for soil cleanup and CEO rejects stalling charges

Toronto Star, Rob Ferguson (Business Reporter)

17 April 2003

Noisy demonstrators from Port Colborne handed out "Inco dirt bags" outside the mining company's annual meeting yesterday and accused the company of delaying the cleanup of contaminated soil around their homes.

The see-through plastic sandwich bags were filled with earth from their backyards contaminated with nickel oxide, a legacy of Inco's processing of more than 2.5 million tonnes of the metal between 1918 and 1984. Inco still refines cobalt and some precious metals on the site.

"There are stall tactics in place,'' said Ellen Smith, a mother who lives near the Inco refinery and fears letting her two boys play outside. "Reports are delayed, studies deferred, it's one thing after another."

Inside the annual meeting at the Metro Convention Centre, Inco chief executive Scott Hand denied the allegations and said the world's second-largest nickel producer has repeatedly offered to clean up the land on which 25 refinery-area homes sit.

But only five homeowners have agreed to cleanups, which have so far cost Inco a total of $1 million.

"For some reason we haven't been able to convince people," said Hand, whose company's profits almost tripled in the first quarter to $30 million. "I'm a little bit confused why it hasn't happened."

Protestors said the holdup is a difference in opinion on how much cleanup is required for nickel oxide, a carcinogen that is linked to asthma and a skin condition some have dubbed the "Inco itch."

While the provincial environment ministry's general guidelines for cleanup of nickel oxide are set at 310 parts per million, the ministry has set 8,000 parts per million as the threshold in Port Colborne. While human health can be at risk at 310, much higher readings can be considered safe depending on soil conditions.

"They've relaxed the rules,'' said Whitney Rodricks of Environmental Defence Canada, a charitable organization that is helping the residents and has established a website at

Despite its belief there are no health dangers in the nickel oxide levels, Inco already spent $10 million on a community-based risk assessment study begun three years ago to measure the impact of contamination throughout Port Colborne.

"We think that is the right way to approach a legacy issue like this,'' said Hand.

Residents say they were promised the study was to be completed within two years.

On other matters, Inco said it is getting ready to build a plant in the lucrative China market, where demand for nickel is skyrocketing as industrial production rose 17 per cent in the first quarter.

The plant would be a "carbon copy" of a joint venture processing facility now operating in South Korea and would process ore from Inco's Goro mine in New Caledonia, said Peter Goudie, an executive vice-president who spends much of his time in China.

The mine is due to begin production in late 2005 because of expected cost overruns.

Asia, excluding Japan, is now Inco's biggest market by far and the potential for growth remains strong, he added.

Nickel is a key component in the production of stainless steel.

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