MAC: Mines and Communities

60-year poisoning legacy finally recognised in Canadian township

Published by MAC on 2009-10-13

It's taken a quarter of a century for authorities in the Canadian province of Newfoundland to formally recognise that toxic pollution at a closed-down mine has probably been poisoning local residents and workers over many decades.

Last week, blood tests were being carried out on very young children in the town of Buchans, with voluntary testing being offered to adults.

While the province's Environment minister claims there is "no need to panic", its Department of Health issued precautionary "guidelines", suggesting ongoing contamination - particularly, but not only, from lead - is a real and present danger.

Several important, so far unaddressed, questions are prompted by this event.

Why did it take so long for basic data to be obtained on the levels of heavy metals in the town's soil? What measures - if any - are now being taken to trace and examine former workers at the plant and their families?

And why has US copper major, ASARCO - the mine's operator and effective manager of this "company town" for 60 years - apparently escaped responsibility for its operations?

Canadian paper giant, AbitibiBowaters, which "owned" Buchans in a joint tenancy agreement with ASARCO  is being held accountable for damages, though it may not have the assets to pay them. 

ASARCO is just about to be taken over, and effectively refinanced,  by either Grupo Mexico or Vedanta Resources, depending on a decision by a US court. See:

One wonders if anyone involved in that particular corporate "battle" has even heard of the tiny township of Buchans and the struggles of its citizens?

[Comment by Nostromo Research, London, 11 November 2009]

The mining town where poisoned soil is 'a part of life'

by Jessica Leeder, Globe and Mail

7 October 2009 (updated on 9 October 2009)

Tiny Buchans, Nfld., has always been a company town.

Transformed at the beginning of the last century from a slice of wilderness in the remote centre of the province to a self-sustaining hub by a U.S. mining giant, it was built for a single purpose: the mining of millions of tonnes of ore. For a long time, mining conglomerates owned the town, controlling who came in, where they lived and what they ate.

Although the ore ran out three decades ago and the mining companies mostly moved on, they retained a grip on the fate of Buchans: Residents learned this week the industry that created their town seems also to have poisoned it.

Three provincial cabinet ministers called an emergency meeting at the town school on Tuesday night to deliver the news that recent soil tests uncovered high concentrations of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, uranium and copper, which "exceed human health guidelines."

They directed all pregnant women and children under age 6 to undergo blood testing to determine what impact, if any, the soil contamination has had. Voluntary testing for adults and senior citizens will also be done.

"We can't conclusively say that this is a major concern at this point," Charlene Johnson, Newfoundland's Environment Minister, told residents. "There's no need for anybody to panic."

As residents of the town 200 kilometres west of Gander continued to digest the news yesterday, there were no overt signs of alarm. Mayor Derm Corbett said there are only about a dozen young children in Buchans, and no pregnant women that he knows of. Still, he predicted a heightened "level of anxiety in the community" until testing is done and results are released.

Jeremy Chippett and his wife, Robyn, said they plan to have their daughter Kelli Lynn, 2, tested "for peace of mind."

"Ever since I've grown up we've always had these issues ... it was just a part of life here," Mr. Chippett said. "It's no great surprise to me or anybody else in town."

Having played in the town's infamous Mucky Ditch, an area that was recently remediated but was known for years as a swamp loaded with contaminates from mining run-off, is a common experience among a certain generation.

For years, many have seen the yellow moon dust sprinkled throughout the town as little more than the residue of dimmed mining-industry fame. The town, which started out in the early 1900s, gained special status when the metallurgists' difficulties in treating lead and zinc concentrates from the ore became the basis for the development of a new "selective flotation" technique.

It paved the way for industry advancement, but also drew international attention to the tiny town, giving the U.S. mining firm ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) ammunition in its negotiations with government to pursue development of a privately owned community to support the operation.

With tough economic conditions in Newfoundland on its side, the company won. By 1928, it had constructed a mine and mill, bunkhouses and cottages for married workers, a mess hall, church, school, hospital and hydro-electric plant. The company controlled it all, including a ban on outside vendors and the use of a 37-kilometre railroad track to Millertown.

"You didn't get in unless you worked with the company; you didn't get out unless you had a company pass," said Mr. Corbett, the mayor. "This was a company town for a long, long time. For years, if a miner passed away, his family was given two weeks to vacate."

Over time, fierce labour strikes were staged over living and working conditions - extra blankets in the bunk house and raises measured by nickels and dimes - and restrictions loosened. Restaurants and other vendors moved into the town.

At its peak, the population was around 3,500. But by the mid-1970s, it became clear the ore had been depleted. The mine, owned in a joint-tenancy agreement between ASARCO and the pulp-and-paper giant AbitibiBowater, was scheduled to close in the early 1980s.

Talk turned to cleaning up areas where mining waste had been dumped, including what is known as the toxic tailings spill area, which residents estimate stretches six hectares.

"In the past, when environmental regulations were not as stringent as they are today, if there were problems at the mill when the ore was being processed, they just opened a valve and allowed the material to fill out into this marshy, boggy area," Mr. Corbett said.

Ivan Hodder, 76, began at Buchans as a millwright in 1952, when he was 18. He can remember when the tailings "ran right through the centre of town in an open ditch."
"All these tailings were pumped in different places and the ground became polluted," he said. "It's still in the ground."

Cleanup has been stalled by a complicated series of insolvency-related issues with both companies overseeing the mine. AbitibiBowater has responsibility for the site but is embroiled in a battle over its assets with the province.

Meanwhile, the province has pledged to take charge of cleaning up the remaining sites in Buchans. That was welcome news to all of its 750 remaining residents, nearly half of whom are retirees, while most others work in the service industry or mining-related jobs nearby.

"It's time somebody got off their ass and started cleaning this place up," Mr. Hodder said.

Lead contamination concerns in central N.L. town prompt blood testing

By Michael Macdonald, Canadian Press

7 October 2009

BUCHANS, N.L. - Government officials are recommending special blood tests for pregnant women and young children living in this small town in central Newfoundland, where the dust from a long-abandoned mine has left a troubling legacy of toxic contamination.

Results from two dozen recent soil tests revealed that some of the samples had high levels of lead, a substance that can cause neurological problems, particularly if ingested by young children.

The provincial government confirmed Wednesday the levels of heavy metals in some of the samples exceeded human health guidelines.

Buchans Mayor Derm Corbett said the rest of the town's 750 residents have been told they can get a blood test at the local hospital for the next two weeks if they are anxious about the findings.

But the tests are not mandatory and are considered a simple precaution, he said.

"We're used to this," he said in an interview Wednesday. "With our mining background, we know that when anybody pokes at the soil, they're not likely to come up with anything that's extremely good. We've had a mine operation here for almost a century."

On Tuesday, health officials told a packed community meeting that the blood tests are not expected to reveal any serious problems, but they were offered to the entire town to help ease concerns.

"There has never been a case of lead poisoning reported from our community," the mayor said. "In all likelihood, the results of any blood work ... are likely to indicate we're not dealing with a serious problem."

The 57-year-old former teacher said the latest test results were released at the meeting, which included the province's health and environment ministers.

The tests, conducted by a consultant on behalf of the government, were ordered after the company responsible for cleaning up the former base metals mine - Montreal-based AbitibiBowater Inc. - ran into financial problems.

Geraldine Purchase, a lifelong resident of Buchans, said she was stunned when she heard the results.

"I was devastated," the 74-year-old woman said. "We knew that the soil was contaminated, but we didn't know the lead content was so high ... I've been breathing in this dust for all those years."

She said government officials confirmed lead levels in some areas were up to three times higher than the acceptable health guidelines.

"I'm worried about my little grandchildren," she said. "You know they're getting this on their hands."

Purchase has four children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren, aged 8 and 13, still live in Buchans.

The woman said she had her blood tested Wednesday "for precautionary measures." She said the A.M. Guy Health Centre was very busy with residents of all ages seeking blood tests.

Still, Purchase said there was no sense of panic in the town and most residents were satisfied with what they were told at the meeting.

However, she said the mood of the town could be described as deep concern.

The tests also found high levels of arsenic, uranium and antimony. But the government noted that certain levels of heavy metals occur naturally in soil.

"While this data is preliminary, it allows us to inform the town so appropriate measures can be taken to reduce their exposure while additional testing is ongoing," Environment Minister Charlene Johnson said in a statement.

"While several of the heavy metals tested in the Buchans area have exceeded the recommended guidelines, it does not necessarily mean the soil is dangerous or that there is a health hazard."

Newfoundland and Labrador's Conservative government has agreed to pay to clean up the main site of contamination, known as the tailing spill area.

"We have listened to the environmental concerns raised by the residents of Buchans," Johnson said.

A cleanup of a seven-hectare site, expected to begin in the spring, will cost at least $3 million, the mayor said.

The site, one of several around the town, contains about 30,000 cubic metres of tailings laced with high levels of heavy metals. It also looks like "the dark side of the moon," the mayor said.

"You can't grow anything there."

He said the town's residents are delighted the cleanup will finally go ahead.

"People I have spoken to are confident," Corbett said. "They are not overly concerned."

In the meantime, the government says residents should take measures to avoid contamination by ensuring small children wash their hands after playing with soil, refrain from wearing soiled shoes indoors and regularly wet mop their floors and windows.

The dust from the tailings has been a recurring problem for decades.

On Dec. 9, 1985, then-mayor Sean Power warned residents to stay inside or travel by car because of swirling clouds of yellow dust.

At the time, residents said it looked like it was snowing yellow flakes when winds whipped across three heaps of waste.

Power later said tests had determined that the dust posed no threat to residents, who numbered 1,500 at the time. He said that Dr. Les Hewlett of the provincial Environment Department assured him that the dust was not harmful.

Vegetation was seeded to keep the dust down, but the worst area remains a barren, yellowish moonscape.

The American Smelting and Refining Co. and its partner, Abitibi Price Inc., closed the mine in 1984, its store of base metals mined out after 56 years of operation.

In its heyday, the mine employed 600 people and the town had about 3,000 residents, the mayor said. In all, about 18 million tonnes of ore were pulled from the ground to be smelted for lead, zinc and copper.

Like many mill towns, Buchans still has its rows of uniform wooden houses nestled in an expanse of spruce and rocks.

Many of them are empty now. But Purchase said some former residents have come back as the province experiences an economic revival with its burgeoning offshore oil industry.

There were predictions the town would die once its main employer was gone. But the town has held on, relying now on employment from the local hospital, school and a new base metals mine at Duck Pond, about 20 kilometres away.

In 1998, Vancouver-based United Bolero set up a plant in town to extract barite from the tailings. The substance is used as a lubricant by the petroleum industry.

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.


Provincial Government Responds to Soil Testing in Buchans

Press Release: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Environment and Conservation Health and Community Services

7 October 2009

Last evening, the Honourable Charlene Johnson, Minister of Environment and Conservation; the Honourable Paul Oram, Minister of Health and Community Services; and the Honourable Susan Sullivan, MHA Grand Falls-Windsor - Buchans, were
in Buchans to discuss with town officials and residents the results of recent soil testing
conducted in the town.

The testing results were received by the Provincial Government on Thursday, October 1, and an analysis by government officials occurred over this past weekend. The testing identified levels of heavy metals in some of the samples which exceed human health guidelines. A total of 12 samples were taken around the perimeter of the town, as well as 12 background samples taken outside the town. The results indicate that, of
the heavy metals found, lead, arsenic, uranium, and antimony exceeded human health guidelines, with the lead values being of primary concern. Although lead is not a carcinogen, it can result in other adverse health impacts.

"As part of our ongoing communication with the people of Buchans concerning mine site
remediation, we felt it important to bring this information forward in a timely fashion," said the Honourable Charlene Johnson, Minister of Environment and Conservation. "While this data is preliminary, it allows us to inform the town so appropriate measures can be taken to reduce their exposure while additional testing is ongoing."

Certain levels of heavy metals occur naturally in soil. While several of the heavy metals tested in the Buchans area have exceeded the recommended guidelines, it does not necessarily mean the soil is dangerous or that there is a health hazard. Taking precautions similar to those for soil lead should be effective in reducing exposure to these heavy metals.

Further testing and analysis on residential properties and public spaces will be carried out in Buchans. Blood lead level testing will also be arranged for the residents of the town.

"As a precautionary measure, arrangements have been made for children, aged two to six, and pregnant women to be tested at the A.M. Guy Health Centre in Buchans to confirm individual blood lead levels are within normal range," said Minister Johnson. "This will take place during the remainder of this week and into next week. Other residents who want to have their blood tested can call the health centre next week to
make arrangements."

Minister Johnson also said that the Provincial Government will remediate the tailings spill area at the former Buchans mine site.

"We have listened to the environmental concerns raised by the residents of Buchans and, as such, we will also remediate the tailings spill area from the former mine site," said Minister Johnson. "Residents and town officials have expressed to us their issue with dust and sediments that originate in the tailings spill area, so we will address this matter."

Although the Provincial Government is proceeding with the remediation to ensure this issue is immediately addressed, it in no way absolves AbitibiBowater from any liability it holds to address environmental legacy issues. AbitibiBowater was the former owner of the Buchans mine site.

"I am very pleased that the health concerns and environmental issues resulting from this testing around the Town of Buchans are being addressed in such a timely manner," said the Honourable Susan Sullivan, MHA for Grand Falls-Windsor - Buchans.
"This government has been both proactive and responsive to the concerns raised by the people of Buchans."

In the interim, the Department of Health and Community Services recommends the following precautionary measures for the residents of Buchans:

• Ensure that children (aged two to six) wash their hands after playing with soil;

• Do not walk throughout your home with footwear that has been in contact with soil on your property; and,

• Have a regular schedule for wet mopping of floors, wet wiping of window components, and vacuuming of carpets.

For more information on the sampling that was done, please contact Dan Michielsen, Department of Environment and Conservation, at 709-729-6697.
For any health information, please contact Dr. Ann Roberts, Central Health, at 709-292-2454.


Media contacts:
Melony O'Neill
Director of Communications
Department of Environment and Conservation
709-729-2575, 689-0928

Ronalda Walsh
Department of Health and Community Services
709-729-1377, 685-1741

Jennifer Bruce
Executive Assistant
Hon. Susan Sullivan, MHA Grand Falls-Windsor - Buchans

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