Waste Not, Want Not

Written by Tracy Glynn on November 5, 2008

Fredericton – The province of Newfoundland and the archipelago nation of New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific seem to have little in common.

New Caledonia, also known as Kanaky after the indigenous Kanaks who inhabit it, is a French colony in the southwest Pacific. Kanaky-New Caledonia separated from Australia some 85 million years ago and is referred to as a Jurassic Park of prehistoric Gondwanan forest, habitat to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The New Caledonia Barrier Reef, which surrounds the country, is the largest coral reef and lagoon system in the world. The endangered dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal, makes its home there, and the green sea turtle depends on the reef as a nesting site. The nautilus, a living fossil species, is still found in these waters. Kanaky-New Caledonia’s tropical lagoons and coral reefs are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, identifying it as a site of outstanding natural importance to the common heritage of humanity.

Demonstration on a remote cliff in Kanaky-New Caledonia, in the south Pacific. Residents of New Caledonia and activists rally against Vale-Inco’s intent to build a marine effluent pipe entrance into their lagoon. Photo by Mike Hosken on behalf of the Comite de Defense du Sud.

Halfway around the world, on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, Sandy Pond lies about 100 kilometres west of St. John’s. Sandy Pond, a 38-hectare headwater lake near the community of Long Harbour, is the centre of a controversy that is forcing people to pick between employment or the environment. The economically depressed region is hungry for jobs but the toxic legacy of the community’s 40-year-old phosphorous plant has environmental concerns at the forefront of many people’s minds. Sandy Pond is home to trout, rainbow smelt, and American eel, a species of conservation concern.

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Vale Inco (formerly Inco, then CVRD Inco) is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Brazilian mining company Vale. Its nickel mining and metals division is headquartered in Toronto. The merger between CVRD and Inco in 2006 created the world’s second-largest nickel producer. Inco, a Canadian company, dates back to the early 1900s. Dark parts of Inco history include its provision of Canadian-mined nickel to Hitler’s Germany and its dealings with brutal dictatorships in Indonesia and Guatemala. Vale Inco’s failure to fulfill human rights requirements had it struck from the FTSE4GOOD index in 2006. The company has been criticized repeatedly for its pollution and its treatment of indigenous communities and workers. Residents of Port Colborne, Ontario, affected by the company’s nickel refinery, are currently suing the company in the largest environmental class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

Today, Vale Inco wants to dump about 400,000 tonnes of waste every year into Sandy Pond as part of a proposal to process Voisey’s Bay nickel at Long Harbour. In Kanaky-New Caledonia, the mining company wants to build a pipeline into the ocean to dispose of mine waste.

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A 2002 Canadian government decision means that natural bodies of water may be renamed as “tailings impoundment areas.” This reclassification is part of the Metal and Mines Effluent Regulations under the Fisheries Act.

Eleven natural water bodies, many of them fish-bearing lakes, are slated to be reclassified as mine-waste disposal sites in the next year or so. Due to legislation protecting lakes and natural water bodies, the practice is not permitted in Quebec, New Brunswick, the United States and many other countries.

Canada is becoming more attractive to mining multinationals because using a lake for waste disposal is cheaper than constructing a tailings pond. Vale Inco estimated that using Sandy Pond would cost $62 million whereas constructing a tailings pond would cost $490 million.

Environment Canada has shortened the time allowed for public input at the national level, making it difficult for Canadians to organize to save their ponds and lakes. Chris Doiron, Chief of the Mining and Minerals Section at Environment Canada, argues that the environmental impact of man-made containment can be larger than the environmental impact of using a lake. Absent from this accounting system, however, is the lost value of a lake ecosystem.

The amended law requires that mining companies proposing to dump waste into fish-bearing lakes and rivers must devise a plan to compensate for loss of fish habitat. Vale Inco plans to compensate for the destruction of Sandy Pond by transferring its fish into two nearby smaller ponds, which will be merged and dammed to contain the water. Concerns have been raised about the impacts on all these water bodies, including the introduction of predatory fish to new habitats.

In June of this year, Newfoundland’s Department of the Environment accepted the Environmental Impact Statement submitted by Vale Inco to use Sandy Pond as a mine waste disposal site.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW/CAW) who represent Placentia Bay fish harvesters are opposing a plan to dispose 1.6 billion gallons of waste effluent each year into Placentia Bay. Fish harvesters are worried that the proposal will severely harm fish habitat and adversely impact their livelihoods. The proposed processing plant will emit an estimated 555,000 kilograms of chemicals including lead, hydrogen chloride, sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid into the air every year, according to the company’s Environmental Impact Statement.

Those who support the use of Sandy Pond as a tailings dump do so for the local employment opportunities. With a current population of 211, down from 522 in 1991, Long Harbour is still reeling from the collapse of the cod fishery and the closure of the phosphorous plant. The mayors of Placentia and Long Harbour-Mount Arlington Heights have both put their support behind the Vale Inco project, hoping it will revitalize the community’s economy.

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Many residents in the proposed area grew up in the shadows of radioactive pollution left behind from Erco’s phosphorous plant. Heaps of waste slag near the plant contained uranium and thorium, and were known to emit carcinogenic radon gas. The fisheries were closed down in 1969 after dead cod and herring were reported in the bay. According to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Heritage Website, investigations revealed that the untreated waste caused the fish kills, and that the plant’s smokestack emitted fluoride that damaged nearby vegetation. The website noted: “Deformed moose and rabbits were found near the plant. Snowshoe hares were dissected and tested, and high levels of fluoride were found in their bones.”

“Canada should not be providing the mining industry unaccounted subsidies by sacrificing natural water bodies for mine waste disposal,” says Catherine Coumans, Research Coordinator with Mining Watch Canada. “Destroying Sandy Pond is clearly not sustainable development and it is not even good practice in mine waste disposal, as Vale Inco acknowledges that Sandy Pond will leak waste into groundwater, creating a contaminant plume. Additionally, the pond will require three dams to hold the waste and these dams will have to be maintained in perpetuity.”

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Vale Inco’s Goro mine in Kanaky-New Caledonia is expected to start production at the end of 2008. Since 2001, the Rheebu Nuu Committee, an indigenous group, has been protesting the mine. It has promised to use all available means to stop the construction of a pipeline into their ocean. Rheebu Nuu has already successfully stopped the company from laying its pipe in Kwe West by building a village of traditional homes in the path of the proposed pipeline. In April 2008, hundreds of Rheebu Nuu supporters gathered to set up a totem pole on a sand bank in the lagoon to show their firm opposition to the waste pipe and to challenge the company to meet with them in dialogue.

Inco’s past refusal to speak with indigenous Kanak groups such as the Rheebu Nuu Committee has been responded to with blockades and in one incident, to the alleged destruction of US$10 million worth of equipment. Sixteen members of the Rheebu Nuu group were arrested following this incident in April 2006. The court acquitted six of the accused and gave suspended fines to the remaining 10 in July 2006. Work at the site eventually resumed, with French military police acting as guards at key areas.

The Kanaks have requested that Vale Inco restore the areas it has destroyed by removing its installations and reforesting the area. According to the Rheebu Nuu Committee, critics have been detained by police for several hours and then released without charge. Youths have attacked security installations and vehicles of mine employees. The Rheebu Nuu Committee has also reported that hooded police have been raiding people’s homes in the middle of the night and taking people away for arbitrary detentions and beatings.

Indigenous groups have taken to confronting police guards on ocean waters to stop the waste pipe that Vale Inco is trying to lay in a hurry. The defiant actions of the indigenous groups and the growing opposition from the non-indigenous population are all thought to have played a role in the eventual signing of an agreement between the company and indigenous community representatives.

Jacques Boengkih of the indigenous organization Agence Kanak de Developpement Nouvelle-Caledonie reports that indigenous groups, including the Rheebu Nuu Committee and the Kanak traditional authorities, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Vale Inco regarding the Goro Nickel plant. The agreement recognizes the legitimacy and rights of the indigenous people as declared in the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, and lays out terms for inclusive sustainable development structures. The Kanaks are now waiting to see how the national and provincial government authorities respond to the agreement.

Activists in Canada are making the connection between Vale Inco’s operations at home and abroad. “Pipelines of waste should not be laid into Sandy Pond, Long Harbour or into the lagoon in Kanaky-New Caledonia,” says Coumans, who works with communities fighting Vale Inco’s mining operations in both Kanaky-New Caledonia and Newfoundland.

The fate of the pipeline into the Kanaky-New Caledonia lagoon is awaiting a decision by the Southern Province government. Sandy Pond is slated for destruction in 2009.

Tracy Glynn is the Acadian Forest Campaigner at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and co-editor of the Mines and Communities website.

Originally published in the Dominion, November 5, 2008.

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