A lake with the humble name of Sandy Pond on the east coast of Newfoundland has become the focal point of a heated debate about how far a community should go to accommodate economic development.
A 38-hectare headwater lake near Long Harbour on the Avalon Peninsula, Sandy Pond has been slated by mining giant Vale Inco for use as a tailings dump for its proposed $2-billion nickel processing plant.
While the region desperately needs the jobs, environmental concerns are on everyone’s mind in an area still recovering from the toxic fallout from a phosphorous processing plant that ran for 40 years in Long Harbour.
Destroying a perfectly good lake by using it as a receptacle for about 400,000 tonnes of mine effluent annually is also not sitting well with many locals, including Andy Murphy, a recreational and commercial fisherman who regularly goes fishing at Sandy Pond.
The pond contains trout, rainbow smelt and American eel, an endangered species. It is also used a lot by locals, says Murphy, adding that about 100 people attended a fishing contest there on the Victoria Day long weekend.
“This is probably the best pond in Newfoundland for the size of the trout — there’s huge trout in it. Creating employment is all right but not at this expense. An awful lot of people in this community are dead set against it,” says Murphy.
Besides depositing effluent into Sandy Pond, the plant would emit over 500,000 kilograms of chemicals including lead, sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid into the air every year, according to Vale Inco’s environmental impact statement.
But as far as Murphy is concerned, the worst move of all is the company’s plan to build a 6-kilometre pipeline running out into Placentia Bay to dispose of 1.6 billion gallons of additional effluent a year, depositing it right in the heart of the codfish spawning grounds.
Local fishermen are extremely worried that the fishery, which was finally beginning to bounce back after being adversely affected by waste from Erco’s phosphorous mine, will again be devastated, says Murphy.
“Anybody with a brain in their head wouldn’t allow this. It’s definitely going to destroy every lobster and salmon and cod that’s there.”
During a CBC Radio show people from all over Newfoundland called in to voice their anger to the proposed nickel plant. But there are also those who feel Sandy Pond can be sacrificed if that’s what it takes to bring employment to the region.
Among those supporting the plant are Placentia Mayor Bill Hogan and Long Harbour-Mount Arlington Heights Mayor Gary Keating.
“The development is a great opportunity in many ways not only for our community but for the province,” says Hogan, adding that if Vale Inco were to build a tailings receptacle it would be far more environmentally damaging than using Sandy Pond.
However, Vale Inco has an added incentive. A man-made tailings pond would cost $490 million whereas converting Sandy Pond would cost only $62 million, according to Mining Watch Canada.
While it’s illegal under the Fisheries Act to dump toxic material into fish-bearing waters, the government amended the act in 2002 to allow natural bodies of water to be used as “tailings impoundment areas.”
Since then, 11 so-called Schedule Two lakes across the country are being eyed by mining companies for this purpose, with eight of them expected to be processed in 2008.
The Duck Pond Mine, also in Newfoundland, involves two lakes that were approved in 2006 and are currently being used as tailings ponds. Two in Nunavut are the next to go, one of which will be pressed into service for a gold mine that only has enough ore to last for two years, says Catherine Coumans of Mining Watch.
The practice is not allowed in Quebec or New Brunswick, and neither is it permitted in the United States or any other countries. This means that many international mining companies are increasingly showing an interest in doing business in Canada because using a lake is so much cheaper than constructing a man-made tailings pond, says Coumans.
“It’s a complete subsidy to the industry,” she says. “They’re essentially taking a public good and sacrificing it, giving this public good to the industry to be destroyed and it will be destroyed forever.”
Coumans adds that there was such an outcry surrounding the Duck Pond project that a lengthy consultation process took place before it was given the go-ahead. But Environment Canada has since shortened the time allowed for public input, making it hard for communities to effectively put up a fight to save their lakes.
So far, only one lake, Duncan Lake in British Columbia, has been turned down, and this is because it went before a joint panel which rejected the proposal.
The Canoe Creek Indian Band, which has been fighting the proposed Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake in B.C.’s Chilcotin region, also wanted a panel review in the hope of preventing the lake from being used for mine effluent but the provincial government has decided not to have one.
Canoe Creek expected that a joint panel “would allow for a transparent and independent review of First Nations’ concerns,” according to a press release. The band is worried about the impact of the project on their culture and way of life as well as on Aboriginal title and land rights.
Under current legislation, mining companies are required to compensate for any loss of fish habitat from water bodies that are converted into tailings ponds.
As part of its compensation, Vale Inco plans to transfer the fish from Sandy Pond into two nearby smaller ponds, but Murphy says that’s not such a good idea. “If you put those trout in another pond … they’re huge, they’d eat the species of another pond.”
The company would also create monitoring wells downstream from Sandy Pond in order to observe the “contaminant plume” in the aquifer and detect any seepage from Sandy Pond.
But compensating for the loss of a lake is easier said than done. According to Mining Watch, the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s own experts acknowledge that they do not have the expertise to compensate for the loss of lake ecosystems.
Hogan has confidence in the project, saying Vale Inco “can’t afford not to be good corporate citizens. They’re going to be going into virgin territory and they’ve got to do whatever’s got to be done to leave it as pristine as possible. Because they wouldn’t get away with it—even those of us who are looking forward to the growth in the community won’t tolerate abuse.”
Calls to the Canadian Mining Association and Vale Inco seeking comment were not returned by press time. However, during a public meeting in Long Harbour, a mine representative said that considering the kind of topography Canada has, using natural lakes is “the safest option.”
Coumans believes the Long Harbour area is highly unsuitable for the processing plant.
“It’s completely bizarre because the ore is coming from Voisey’s Bay in Labrador and being shipped to Long Harbour. [Vale Inco] should have chosen an industrial area, not basically a fishing community.”
Murphy says every time he looks out his window he can see “a mountain of slag” remaining from the phosphorous plant which closed in 1989. He says the radon gas the slag emits causes cancer and should be cleaned up before any more industrial projects are started.
“We’re stuck with millions of metric tonnes of radio-active waste. The community of Long Harbour is only 200 people and there’s 12 cancer survivors here right now and a whole lot that didn’t survive up in the graveyard. I’d say 90 per cent of the people who died here over the last 40 years died of cancer.”
Mining projects for which companies have proposed the use of healthy natural water bodies for mine waste disposal
Doris North Project
Miramar Mining Corp.
Assessed under Nunavut Land Claims Agreement; approved
Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd.
(formerly Cumberland Resources)
Northwest arm of Second Portage Lake
|Assessed under Nunavut Land Claims Agreement; approved|
|3||Long Harbour Commercial Processing Plant||Voisey’s Bay Nickel Co. (Vale Inco) (formerly INCO)||Newfoundland and Labrador||Sandy Pond||In provincial Env. Assessment and federal screening|
|4||Ruby Creek||Adanac Molybdenum Corp.||British Columbia||Ruby Creek watershed||In provincial Env. Assessment and federal screening|
|5||Prosperity||Taseko Mines Ltd.||British Columbia||Fish Lake||In provincial Env. Assessment|
|6||Bucko Lake||Crowflight Minerals Inc.||Manitoba||Bucko Lake||In federal Env. Assessment screening|
|7||Yellowknife Gold||Tyhee NWT Corp.||Northwest Territories||Winter Lake||Temporarily suspended by proponent|
|8||High Lake||Zinifex Ltd. (formerly Wolfden Resources Inc.)||Nunavut||High Lake||EAs have been initiated under the terms of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and CEAA|
|9||Kutcho Creek||Western Keltic Mines Inc. / Sherwood||British Columbia||Andrea Creek watershed||In provincial Env. Assessment|
|10||Red Chris||Imperial Metals Corp. (formerly bcMetals Corp.)||British Columbia||Quarry Creek and Trail Creek||The CEAA screening was challenged in Federal Court|
|11||Mt. Milligan||Terrane Metals Corp.||British Colombia||King Richard Creek||Under CEAA review|
Already destroyed under Schedule 2
|2||Duck Pnd||Aur Resources/
|Gill's Brook tributary||Approved|
Adapted from Environment Canada (2007) by MiningWatch Canada