MAC: Mines and Communities

Environmental furor brews as Feds ponder nickel mine-waste dumping

Published by MAC on 2008-07-28
Source: Canadian Press

Sandy Pond is proposed as a dump for mine tailings produced by a proposed $2-billion nickel-processing plant at Long Harbour. It pits environmentalists against an area desperately in need of jobs.

LONG HARBOUR, Nfld -- Armed with nothing more than a rod and reel, Andy Murphy is an unlikely environmental warrior, waging a fight against a plan to dump thousands of tonnes of mining waste into a trout pond in southeastern Newfoundland.

The battleground is Sandy Pond, a small tranquil lake not far from Long Harbour on the Avalon Peninsula, about 100 kilometres west of St. John's.

It is at the centre of a simmering dispute that pits environmental concerns against the hope for jobs in a region that desperately needs them.

"I can't believe that our federal politicians or our provincial politicians are going to allow it," said Murphy, a 56-year-old commercial and recreational fisherman.

"It's just one pond, but it's something like saying the Atlantic Ocean is just one ocean, and I can't believe that they're going to destroy it."

Mining giant Vale Inco intends to use Sandy Pond as a dump for mine tailings produced by its proposed $C2-billion nickel-processing plant at Long Harbour.

The company's environmental impact statement calls for the water basin to serve as a receptacle for more than 400,000 tonnes of effluent annually, including nickel, copper and cobalt. The nickel facility would also emit 555,000 kilograms of chemicals, including sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride and lead, into the air every year.

The federal and provincial cabinets are expected to announce their decisions on the environmental impact statement this summer.

The plan has divided the residents of Long Harbour.

The town of 211 - down from 522 in 1991 - is still reeling from the closure of a toxin-spewing phosphorus plant and the commercial cod fishery nearly 20 years ago.

"This region has been hit heavy over the past two decades," said Mayor Gary Keating, a supporter of the proposed nickel facility.

A project of this magnitude would revive Keating's community economically and play a major role in securing a prosperous future for Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole, he said.

The nickel plant is expected to be the first of four massive ventures to come online in Newfoundland - including the Hebron offshore oil development, the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project and an oil refinery - that would pour billions of dollars into the province. Construction could begin as early as next year.

Despite its anticipated economic benefits, the facility has generated fierce opposition.

On his back deck, Gerard Brothers points to a one-kilometre-long heap of slag jutting out of Placentia Bay, the remnant waste of the phosphorus plant.

"I grew up with pollution and I don't want to see no more pollution," the 52-year-old said.

With his daughter and wife out of work, Brothers says he struggles as his family's sole breadwinner.

"I should be one of the ones that want to see this, shouldn't I? Not for the environmental cost," the high school caretaker said.

"If that plant is coming over here, I don't want to live here."

But others say it's worth sacrificing one fish pond in a province that has thousands of them.

"To talk about this pond like it's the end of this world, it's pretty crazy," said Bob Murphy, a 51-year-old resident of nearby Dunville.

"We're dead here, we're finished here if we don't get something like that."

In 2002, changes were implemented to the federal Fisheries Act that allowed Ottawa to classify natural water bodies as tailing impoundment areas. The amended law requires mining companies that propose to dump waste into fish-bearing lakes and rivers to devise a plan to compensate for habitat loss.

In 2006, after the federal government allowed Aur Resources Inc. to dump tailings into two ponds in central Newfoundland for a copper-zinc operation, environmentalists warned water bodies across Canada would become junkyards for mining companies.

Since then, 15 mining projects have proposed to use water bodies as tailings ponds, according to Environment Canada.

"This has become a bit of a plague, quite frankly," said Catherine Coumans, a researcher with Ottawa-based MiningWatch Canada.

Coumans points out that other countries, including the United States, do not allow water bodies to be reclassified as dumps for the mining industry.

"We're feeling quite desperate about this right now," she said. "Every lake that's destroyed is a lake that's destroyed forever. We're not going to get that lake back."

Chris Doiron, chief of mining for Environment Canada, said comparisons with the practices of other countries is unfair because of differences in topography and water availability.

"There is no question that we understand that this has to be very carefully considered and that's where we think we are," Doiron said.

NDP fisheries critic Peter Stoffer said the reclassification of lakes and rivers amounts to a subsidy for the mining industry. He said he finds it laughable that mining companies would argue that tailings ponds pose less environmental harm than man-made pits.

"That's nonsense," Stoffer said.

"The only reason they're using a freshwater lake to dump their tailings in is because it's cheaper."

In Vale Inco's case, that's true. After evaluating 12 options for waste storage, it concluded that a man-made containment would cost $490 million. Converting Sandy Pond would cost $62 million.

But company spokesman Bob Carter said an excavated pit would leave a larger ecological footprint.

"Just by way of illustration, it would be an area of about 9,200 Olympic swimming pools in terms of its capacity," Carter said.

"Even if you remove the economic, or financial criteria from the equation, Sandy Pond still is the best alternative."

Keating said he understands why some residents in his town would have their reservations, though he adds that those concerns are overblown.

"If you don't sacrifice our surroundings to some degree, you can never have anything," he said.

"That's life."

As part of its plan to compensate for the loss of fish habitat, subject to approval by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Vale Inco would transfer fish out of Sandy Pond into two smaller nearby ponds. Those ponds would be flooded to create one larger lake to hold the extra fish.

But concerns remain that waterfowl could still be exposed to harmful chemicals in the tailings pond.

In its environmental impact statement, Vale Inco said short exposures to the water would not be lethal to birds, and that bird ingestion of Sandy Pond water would be "occasional and acute, rather than chronic," because there are other water bodies nearby.

Vale Inco has not yet determined whether the plant would use hydrometallurgical technology - considered to be more energy efficient than traditional smelting methods - to extract nickel from Voisey's Bay concentrate in Labrador.

The company is expected to decide whether that technology is economically and technically feasible by November.

© The Canadian Press 2008

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