The reclamation of Sudbury: The greening of a moonscape
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, is a tourist destination, with major attractions like Science North and its internationally renowned science center and IMAX Theatre, dozens of lakes and scenic attractions.
It has been called one of the sunniest areas of Ontario, with clean air and world-renowned environmental initiatives. It has even been cited by the United Nations for its land reclamation program and has won several other international and national awards.
However, Sudbury looked radically different just 35 years ago, when a group of transplanted professors, municipal employees, mining company leaders and local residents put their heads together to come up with a way to save it.
Years of mining, logging, fires, smelter emissions and soil erosion had taken their toll, wiping out almost all of the vegetation in the area and poisoning lakes and streams. Because there were no trees on barren sites, there were no leaves to create the mulch that protects the soil. As a result, the barren soil suffered from severe frost in the winter and too much heat in the summer.
Sudbury’s landscape was compared to the surface of the moon. Editorial cartoonists joked that birds had to carry their lunchboxes from tree to tree because they were few and far between.
And in the late 1970s, the community, its university and the mining companies decided to do something about it.
What happened in sudbury
The Sudbury landscape today is the result of several environmental factors acting together over a period of almost a century. Vegetation damage began with irresponsible logging, fire and roasting beds, but the decades of intense fumigation from smelters caused most of the damage. The poisoning of the soil by the addition of acids and toxic metals from smelter fumes created conditions that were unlikely to allow rapid natural recovery.
While logging and fires are blamed for some of the damage to the landscape, mining is held accountable for most. For the past century, Sudbury has produced copper and nickel — and a dozen other metals. Today, the 18 active mines in the area yield more than 50,000 tonnes (55,000 short tons) of ore each day. Reserves are substantial and new deposits are still being found — making mining a likely activity in Sudbury for decades to come.
While mining operations took a toll on the landscape, the majority of the damage is blamed on smelting. “The regulations we have in place today to protect the environment weren’t there decades ago,” says Dr. David Pearson, one of Canada’s foremost science communicators, a professor of earth sciences at Laurentian University, and the founding director of Science North. “There was widespread contamination from smelter fumes, as well as acidic runoff from waste rock.” The damage impacted over 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) and 17,000 lakes in the region.
Pearson explains that metal droplets from the smelters were swept up the stacks by the velocity of the rising sulphur dioxide gas. The droplets froze into metallic dust that drifted to the ground and left the soil heavily contaminated with metal. In turn, the acidity of the soil mobilized the metals in the soil and made them toxic to plants. Because the soil was no longer able to support grass or shrubs, surface layers of soil that held organic materials washed away with nothing there to hold it in place. Slopes and high land in the region lost close to a foot of soil.
A mining town
Two major mining companies were responsible for the bulk of the activity in Sudbury — Inco (now Vale Inco) and Falconbridge (now Xstrata).
“Vale Inco and Sudbury grew up together,” says Vale Inco spokesman Cory McPhee, director of communications and public affairs. “There was a period when we were ‘Mother Inco,’ and the community relied on us for everything. It was not always a loving relationship. It was born of dependency and the company was perceived as arrogant at times.”
At its peak, Vale Inco employed 20,000 people in the mines and processing plants. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, both the company and the community were hit by a downturn in the world nickel markets that saw layoffs, shutdowns and lengthy labor disputes that strained the relationship.
“The company faced a number of ongoing issues that threatened its relationship with the community,” says McPhee. These included the atmospheric sulphur emissions that scarred the surrounding landscape and destroyed vegetation and acidified lakes; sulphur dioxide leaks into the surrounding community; blasting noise and vibrations in people’s homes; and operating noise and dust.
McPhee said the company finally came to an important realization — that Vale Inco and the community must work together. “We benefited from the ore and the community benefited from the ore. We finally realized that we could get much further if we were partners.”
Improving performance and reducing emissions
Government regulations and newly developed methods of removing sulfur from the ore and smelter fumes have caused significant reductions in emissions. Emissions were reduced at both the Copper Cliff (Vale Inco) and Falconbridge (Xstrata) smelters — in some cases by as much as 90 percent.
“We recognized early on that improving our communications and social responsibility would only take the company so far,” explains McPhee. “We knew we had to work on our performance — reducing emissions, dealing with the impact of our operations to-date, and improving our blasting operations.”
In the early 1970s, Vale Inco erected the Superstack, a 380-meter-tall (1,247-foot-tall) chimney constructed at a cost of US$25 million to protect the nearby city from smelter emissions.
In 1994, the company completed a US$600 million sulphur dioxide abatement project, significantly reducing emissions and improving air quality in the Sudbury region. Work on emission reductions continues today — with close to US$1 billion spent since 1980. The company has reduced emissions in Sudbury by more than 90 percent. Most recently, a further 34 percent reduction was achieved in October 2006 with the introduction of new scrubbing technology at the company’s fluid bed roaster facility. More significant cuts are planned by 2015.
“The essence of our emission reduction efforts is to capture and convert the sulphur dioxide that would otherwise be emitted and transform it into marketable products,” says McPhee. “We do it for environmental reasons, but we’re also able to sell the resulting sulphuric acid and liquid sulphur dioxide.”
The reductions in emissions set the stage for further reclamation activities including pioneering techniques such as aerial seeding of large tracts of barren land inaccessible by traditional treatment methods. The company also launched and paid for a US$10 million soil study in partnership with Xstrata, looking at the impact to human health and the environment of years of metal deposits. Other partners in the study included the City of Greater Sudbury, the Sudbury and District Health Unit, the Ontario Ministry of Environment, and Health Canada Inuit and First Nations Branch.
Vale Inco also improved its blasting operations. “We agreed not to blast before or after certain hours,” says McPhee. “And we set up a phone system that automatically calls residents before blasts over a certain size. Residents told us that just knowing what was happening has made a huge difference. It wasn’t a technical solution; it was a community solution.”
While mining companies were working on becoming better citizens of Sudbury, an effort was under way to begin turning around the community’s barren landscape.
The newly formed Regional Municipality of Sudbury created a “Technical Tree Planting Committee,” which in 1978 changed its name to the Vegetation Enhancement Technical Advisory Committee (VETAC). The organization is committed to the restoration and protection of Sudbury’s air, land and water.
At the same time, joint work between the Ministry of Natural Resources and Laurentian University was under way to create the “science” necessary to regreen Sudbury’s landscape.
As part of its reclamation efforts, Vale Inco had tried sowing grass seed — which would germinate, but the roots would wither as soon as they encountered the contaminated soil. After years of experimentation, Laurentian researchers — led by the late Keith Winterhalder, a Laurentian professor and former VETAC chairman — learned that an application of ground limestone could detoxify soil. They also learned that if a sparse grass cover could be established on a rocky hillside that had been treated with limestone and fertilizer, seeds from the few existing trees in the area would blow in, germinate and grow.
“This effort was a marriage of research expertise from the university and municipal involvement,” says Pearson. “For the university, it was both a research project and a public service. The people in municipal administration were also keen to get on with the work. They were conscious of the city’s image and wanted to change it.”
“The science isn’t really complicated,” says Pearson. “First lime is scattered onto the soil to help deal with the acidity. And then fertilizer is added to provide the nutrients that plants need. In the first four to five years of research, Keith Winterhalder and his colleagues learned what were effective mixtures of lime and fertilizer, what grasses would provide cover, what trees would survive, and how best to plant them.”
While the process isn’t complicated, it is very labor intensive. “Everything had to be done by hand, by armies of people carrying bags of lime,” says Pearson. “And after that was done, they would walk the land with bags of grass seed and fertilizer.”
Newly hired environmental planner Bill Lautenbach came across Winterhalder’s research just as the community learned that the mining companies were laying off thousands of workers. Lautenbach led a task force to come up with short-term job creation opportunities — and thanks to a number of federal and local grants, the city was able to put some of those unemployed people to work in the regreening effort.
“I knew about VETAC,” says Lautenbach. “So I tried to get funds for some short-term jobs to help with VETAC’s efforts, and they agreed. Over the years we have received numerous types of grants and funding to keep this project going.”
The greening of Sudbury
Between 1978 and 2007, the “Greening of Sudbury” saw 3,300 hectares (8,100 acres) limed and seeded, and more than 8.8 million trees and 43,427 shrubs planted. This is one of the largest re-greening efforts in the world. It has been estimated that a total of 15 million trees have been planted over the past 30 years by VETAC, the industry and the community.
VETAC supplies seedlings, planting equipment and guidance to groups, clubs and schools. It also distributes thousands of pine seedlings every year to citizens for residential planting. Many of those seedlings come from Vale Inco, which grows 100,000 trees a year underground at its Creighton Mine, where temperatures are 20 to 24 degrees Celsius (68 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round.
“VETAC did not, of course, act alone,” says Pearson. “Federal and provincial governments provided funding. And without the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in new technology by the mining companies that drastically reduced sulphur emissions, all efforts of VETAC would have come to nothing.”
For its first re-greening efforts, VETAC selected areas of Sudbury that were highly visible — near schools, in the center of the city, or along corridors coming into the community. It didn’t take long before the improvements were visible — and before community residents became even more energized to expand the efforts.
“Everyone knew it was going to be slow, slow work and we were in it for the long haul,” says Pearson. “A few dozen acres was the most we could expect to do at one time. But even early on there were very dramatic improvements.”
Lautenbach says the changes are both profound and subtle. “It seems a gradual change to those who grew up here, but to those who have not seen it in a while it is remarkable. It attracts people to Sudbury. It’s a different place today.”
Why it worked
While the technical side of the regreening effort was important, the social side has been equally as vital to the success of the program. “Getting the community involved is what has sustained the program,” says Pearson. “About 25 percent of the trees have been planted by community groups — Scouts, schools, Lions and Rotary clubs. Some groups volunteer over and over again.”
Many of those involved with the regreening effort point to the people involved as the reason for its success. Some of the early members of VETAC — including Lautenbach and Laurentian botanist / ecologist Peter Beckett — are still involved today.
“This continuity of individuals, their determination, and the recognition that everyone would work has helped make this project succeed,” says Pearson.
Beckett agrees. “These people wanted to get things done,” he says. “After 35 years, there are still about 20 people who were there from the beginning. And the mining companies are a part of it, too.”
Pearson also points out the lack of finger-pointing as a key to success. “There was no blame,” he says. “The committee didn’t want to create hurdles by trying to figure out whose responsibility it was and who would pay. They looked within the city administration and applied to the government for small amounts to keep the work going. The mining companies were spending plenty of money working on their issues, so there was no advantage in laying blame.”
The future of the regreening effort
While much work has been done, much work remains. Pearson estimates that just 30 to 40 percent of the land that needs to be revegetated has been completed. There is work done every year on a small scale.
“The big question is ‘when will it be finished?’ ” says Beckett. “But we don’t know. We’re trying to bring back a forest. There are areas of Sudbury that were reclaimed over 30 years ago, and we still don’t know. How much do we do ourselves — and how much do we leave to nature?”
This is an important question to ecologists and to mining companies — which are charged with returning the lands they disrupt as close as possible to their pre-mining state.
“In the ecological world, when we cause a ‘disturbance,’ it may take 100 to 200 years to have a new forest,” Beckett continues. “We’re trying to move things along faster. We’ve overcome some of the critical inhibitions. We’ve fixed the soil so nature will take over. We’re in the process of assessing the sites to see if we can make a projection of how things are going.”
Beckett says the woodlands in Sudbury have been restructured. There are trees, insects and birds. “But we’re still missing many of the species. We haven’t got the whole assemblage of plants and animals back. We don’t have all the trees or ground species back.”
A new ecological concern also will affect the conditions in Sudbury: Climate change. “The annual temperature has increased 1 degree since 1970,” says Pearson. “That increases evaporation, so it seems likely we will have drier soil conditions. The soil isn’t as deep in Sudbury because of erosion, and the trees are young. There is some concern that drought might damage revegetated areas.”
Beckett says climate change may affect the planting schedules as well as the types of trees selected. “We can now plant trees in the fall when it used to be too cold. But our spring planting is affected by hotter, drier summers so many of the trees we used to plant in spring are not surviving,” he says. “We’ll keep doing research to see how well the sites are faring,” Beckett continues. “We’re also always looking at other ways to improve reclamation.”
Celebrating science — and mining — at Sudbury museum
The community of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has a history rich in science — from mining technology to geology to botany. Suggestions for a Sudbury museum began in the mid-1950s and continued until the late 1970s — when the chairman and vice chairman of mining company Vale Inco agreed to finance a study to explore the concept of a science center in Sudbury.
In January 1981, Vale Inco donated US$5 million to the project — the largest single corporate donation to a community project in Canadian history at that time. Falconbridge Ltd. donated US$1 million — the largest donation in its corporate history. And the Province of Ontario committed US$10 million to the project, paving the way to start construction on the new museum, called Science North.
Science North opened its doors in 1984 and now includes six attractions: a science center, IMAX Theatre, butterfly gallery, motion simulator, special exhibitions hall and Dynamic Earth, home of the Big Nickel.
The science center boasts exhibits, theaters and science labs. It is configured around the labs, each led by a staff scientist, known as a Bluecoat, whose job it is to involve visitors in scientific activity inside the labs. The labs explore astronomy, biology, physics, robotics, computer science, human physiology and more.
In 2003, Science North opened Dynamic Earth — a mining and geology attraction that combines both above- and below-ground experiences. The seven-story Vale Inco chasm leads to an underground mining tour, where visitors witness the transformation of mining over the last 100 years. Other attractions include the Rockhound Lab, where visitors can trade their own rock and minerals for samples in the lab; a newly renovated Explora Mine — a scaled down version of a real working mine — and Mining Command Center, which includes a new Caterpillar® excavator simulator training program; and the Xstrata Nickel Gallery — a walk-through theater that takes visitors through above-ground mineral processing.