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SUDBURY–Mounting concern about heavy metal contamination in Sudbury, a city whose landscape is so choked by slag and smoke that it was once used by NASA as a training site for their astronauts for moon landings, led to the creation of the Sudbury Soils Study. But some community members feel that instead of providing accurate data on pollution, the results of the study whitewashed the degree of soil contamination in the region.
For the last 122 years, nickel mines have been operating in the region now known as Sudbury. The companies involved in the extraction were among the world's biggest and most powerful players in the mining industry: the International Nickel Corporation and Falconbridge, among others. Today, the Sudbury basin sources a large portion of the world's nickel, for which the extraction process involves roasting and reduction, producing waste products in the form of slag, tailings and air emissions, all of which contain significant amounts of waste metals.
Before a smokestack was built in 1987 to carry the airborne byproducts further away, the blanket of waste on the ground choked life and prevented new vegetation from growing, thus giving Sudbury its infamous moonscape appearance.
"I don't trust what's in my vegetables. I don't know how much lead, copper, nickel is in the soil," says Tanya Ball, a community organizer and mother who used to garden in Greater Sudbury community of Wanup.
In May of 2008, the first part of the Sudbury Soils Study, the Human Health Risk Assessment, was finally released. The study concluded that there exists "little risk of health effects on Sudbury area residents associated with metals in the environment."
"The SARA [Sudbury Area Research Association] group announced that 'there is no unacceptable risk', despite the fact that there are levels of toxins that are found to be high in Falconbridge, Copper Cliff, Gatchel, West End, Central Sudbury and Garson. Together, these six geographical areas comprise a large percentage of the city's population," says Ball, who now lives in Central Sudbury.
"It doesn't take a genius to see the prevalence of chronic illnesses in Sudbury," she says.
Many in the community, like Ball, remain unconvinced by the results of the Soils Study. The participation of mining heavyweights in the process may explain why.
The Technical Advisory Committee (TC) of the Sudbury Soils Study was formed in 2002 in order to direct a research project that would determine human and environmental risk arising from soil contamination in the Sudbury region.
The TC hired a scientific research partner and set the research parameters for the study, but some, like Homer Seguin, a local health and safety advocate and former president and staff rep with Steelworkers Local 6500, feel the study was compromised from the beginning because of the the role that mining companies play on the TC.
Vale Inco contributed $7 million and Falconbridge contributed $3 million to the study. Of the six Committee seats on the TC, two are held by the two locally-operating mining companies, with the other four being made up of government and health organizations.
The Ministry of the Environment decided that the companies should pay for the study, but instead of having the companies give the money to the Ministry, the companies themselves took part in overseeing the study.
"They caused the pollution, they should pay. But my view of them paying is that they should be giving the money to the Ministry of the Environment, who's responsible for the environment, and the Ministry should oversee the study," says Seguin.
Despite holding a minority of seats on the TC, the mining companies gained a great deal of control when TC members agreed to make decisions according to consensus. As a result, any decision could be vetoed by any one member of the committee, including either of the mining companies.
The community was kept out of the process from the outset, and neither media nor public observers were allowed to witness the committee's process. In a gesture towards the community, the TC established a Public Advisory Committee (PAC) soon after the scientific studies commenced in 2003. Vale Inco and Falconbridge representatives participated actively in the public meetings.
During one of the public meetings of the TC, Seguin made a presentation on the health of mine workers.
"The first meeting where I had made a presentation to the PAC, one of the members actually attacked me, verbally attacked me and the union, saying that the union could have done some more. As if it was the unions' responsibility" he recalls.
"In my opinion, they set up this PAC as an attempt to fool the public that somebody was a watchdog over them so [the public] did not have to worry."
Franco Mariotti is the independent process observer for the Soils Study. He refutes the notion that mining-company representatives bullied participants at the PAC or TC meetings.
But the weight of mining companies in the process may explain why some of the testing procedures were, by federal and provincial standards, mild.
SARA, which was hired by the TC to conduct the study, was instructed to only make note of lead concentrations in Sudbury soil that were upwards of 400 parts per million (ppm), well above the federal standard of 140ppm, or the Ontario provincial standard for post-industrial cleanup sites of 200ppm. Lead is a known probable carcinogen with no known threshold. Even the recommended maximum levels of exposure may increase cancer risks.
When the SARA group announced their conclusions, community activists, academics, labour organizers and other community members, including Seguin and Ball, countered the "little risk" findings by forming the Community Committee on the Soils Study (CCSS).
Joan Kuyek, chair of the CCSS, explains that the goal of the Committee is to involve the public as much as possible in decisions that affect them with regards to the Soils Study. Currently, the Committee is calling for the Ontario government to provide further testing and analysis such as blood and hair testing, and more extensive testing of gardens. This is data that the community has requested and that the Study is not providing, Kuyek says. The CCSS is also expanding and holding public events in order to involve more people in the Committee's analysis and response to the Soils Study.
In addition, the CCSS is seeking an independent review for the Soil Study's next portion - the Environmental Assessment - which is expected to be released in early 2009.
"The reason why I am present [in the Community Committee] is because I want to keep this from happening to my son," Ball says in regards to living with heavy metal contamination in the Sudbury area. "I can't leave this mess for another generation to clean up."
In the fall of 2008, a union-sponsored report prepared by Environmental Defense Canada poked holes in the methodology used in the Sudbury Soils Study.
Environmental Defense's report, Human Health Risk Assessment, outlines key concerns for people living in the Sudbury area. It states that SARA's own conclusions are that lead, nickel and arsenic are above recommended exposure rates in a number of communities in the Sudbury region. Further, it reveals that the Soils Study does not take into account the compounded effect of multiple routes of exposure, nor does it consider how the environmental contaminants might interact with one another in the human body.
The report points out, for instance, that the levels of nickel found in the air are higher than recommended exposure limits for non-cancer and cancer effects in three communities. SARA dismissed the risk, stating that it was within acceptable range because it fell within a "margin of safety," when in fact margins of safety are intended to protect people who are more sensitive to contaminants, as well as provide a buffer for uncertainties in the data. They are not intended to discount the risk associated with higher levels of toxins.
Nickel has serious implications for health; in large enough quantities it increases chances of development of lung cancer, nose cancer, larynx cancer and prostate cancer, respiratory failure, birth defects, asthma and other conditions.
"In Sudbury, we have cancers that are 11 per cent higher than the national average. We have chronic obstructive lung disesases at 85 per cent higher, all this stuff that would be caused by these extra [contaminants]," says Seguin.
Another lingering topic of concern is the fact that the study's model subject in the calculation of health risks is a baby female born in Sudbury in 2005. While this model can be used to explore the health impacts on a vulnerable population, it also excludes anyone born prior to 2005, as well as workers who have been exposed to higher concentrations of metals and toxins in the smelters and mines.
Unions have been advocating a change in this approach since the formation of the TC was announced. The only reply from the TC has been that health risks that affect workers are the domain of the Ministry of Labour, not the Ministry of the Environment, and that they will therefore not touch the issue.
Seguin himself suffers from chronic obstructive lung disease resulting from his work as a labourer at Inco. The fact that many people in community have not responded to the soils study process affects him deeply. "When I get on this topic, I get very emotional about it. I take it to heart. I find it a hard thing to understand, how Sudburians would allow that to happen," he says, coughing and clearing his throat.
Currently, Vale Inco is applying for legal exception from new provincial legislation that requires that they reduce their nickel emissions, pushing for an alternate standard for nickel emission levels until 2015.
Shailagh Keaney is from Sudbury, in occupied Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.