Last week in Sudbury, Kelly Strong, Vice President of Vale's Ontario and U.K. Operations, announced that Vale was considering taking down the iconic Superstack - a symbol of both Sudbury's mining prosperity and of environmental degradation (see: “Sudbury’s Superstack could be coming down: Vale”, the Sudbury Star, November 4, 2014, and “Vale clear to tear down Sudbury’s Superstack”, the Sudbury Star, November 7, 2014)
Mining has a reputation of being one of the world's least environmentally-friendly enterprises. Along with scars left imprinted on natural landscapes, toxic chemicals released from processing and refining poison our soils and water. Massive amounts of energy, often from fossil fuel sources, are used to power industrial mining processes.
Yet, the world has a voracious appetite for minerals and metals. According to the Ontario Mining Association, mining contributes approximately $10 billion annually to Ontario's economy, and employs around 23,000 workers directly and in support activities (see: “Mining: Dynamic and Dependable for Ontario's Future”, submitted to Ontario Mining Association, December 2012). Although we could be doing a much better job at recycling existing mined materials, it is expected that demand for new resources will remain high.
The story of the mining industry's impacts on the natural environment isn't all that different from that of other industries, except perhaps for the scale. Throughout the 20th Century, the mining industry was prodded to clean up its processes coincident with the public's demand for healthier communities. In the 1960's, the publication of Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” kicked off an environmental awakening culminating in the early 1970's with new federal and provincial laws to protect the environment. With the public demanding real action from government and industry, INCO, Vale's predecessor, was at work planning to reduce dangerous emissions.
INCO's plan was to diffuse sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxide and other dangerous emissions by building what was at the time the world's tallest smoke stack – the Superstack. The acid-stained black rocks of the Sudbury basin, and our treeless landscape were a testament to the mining industry's dirty past practices. The Superstack, and an aggressive re-greening initiative, saw communities in the Sudbury region reclaim despoiled lands, leading to international recognition by the United Nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992. SO2 emissions from the Copper Cliff smelter plunged from 2,000 kt (kilotonnes) in 1970 to about 600 kt by 1990 (see: “Vale Clean AER Project Brochure”, 2014).
In the 1980s, with international calls for action on acid rain, INCO responded with a new round of technological initiatives to scrub the primary culprit, SO2, from emissions leaving the stack. SO2 emissions were reduced further, down to about 250 kt by 2000.
With the $1 billion Atmospheric Emissions Reduction (AER) project coming online in 2015, the Copper Cliff smelter will be emitting even less SO2 – only about 20 kt (kilotonnes) per year, well below the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change's 66 kt regulatory maximum. Vale may be able to save money while lowering climate changing carbon emissions by decommissioning the Super Stack, and replacing it with a smaller chimney.
INCO's, and now Vale's experiences dealing with environmental matters mirrors those of other industries which have reacted and adapted to a growing awareness of the importance of the natural environmental throughout the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, the mining industry is already looking at ways to mitigate climate change (see: “Renewables repositioning to meet mining industry's energy needs”, MiningWeekly.com, September 16, 2014). Industry leaders like Glencore are replacing diesel power with renewable energy for mining activities in remote areas (see: "Raglan mine: Canada's first industrial scale wind and energy storage facility”, Henry Lazenby, MiningWeekly.com, August 22, 2014). And here in Sudbury, Vale is partnering with a local renewable energy co-operative, making available waste rock-covered lands for the installation of solar panels.
Should the Superstack come down, its absence from the landscape will prove to be just another step in the decades-long greening of the Sudbury basin and mining practices more generally. In the coming decades, wind towers and solar arrays may become new industrial landmarks and symbols of mining prosperity.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
Originally published as "Stack reflects mining's green efforts"the Sudbury Star, Saturday, November 15, 2014 (online November 16, 2014), without hyperlinks).
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