Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Perspective: A clouded issue

It's survival first, then the environment as Flin Flon weighs the options

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FLIN FLON-- It's a rugged mining city with houses wedged into unyielding rock and a smelter stack dominating the skyline.

For first-time visitors, the tall, slender copper stack is the clearest sign of Flin Flon's inextricable link to HudBay Minerals, the zinc and copper mining giant that similarly dominates life in the border community.

For many residents, the smelter is just part of the scenery. Recent soil toxicity findings and the occasional 'crash' of sulphur dioxide smoke are seen by some as accepted environmental trade-offs to life in the mining city, where pay averages $80,000 a year. "It's not as if we're walking around with masks on," said Mayor Tom Therien.

But for HudBay, the aging smelter is a visible legacy of its earliest days and perhaps its biggest environmental liability. And some time over the next seven years, HudBay says, the smelter will be shut down, a decision that has sparked job fears in the mining community.

The highly scrutinized smelter is linked to recent discoveries of heavy metal contamination in Flin Flon soil, which has led to a health risk assessment. It has also helped make HudBay the highest producer of emissions of mercury and arsenic in North America. Its greenhouse gas emissions have made it Manitoba's fifth-worst emitter in 2006.

Balancing the costs and benefits of protecting the environment is a calculation everyone makes. But for most of us, the payments and payouts are abstract. There are few places where the choices are as stark and specific as they are in Flin Flon, both for the company and the citizens.

HudBay plans to shut down the smelter before 2015, when federal emissions targets kick in, rather than invest in cleaner technology to convert sulphur dioxide to saleable sulphuric acid, which it says is impractical and prohibitively expensive.

On a recent tour of HudBay operations around Flin Flon and Snow Lake, officials said the smelter is energy inefficient and economically unfeasible -- "a bit of a dinosaur," said Alan Hair, vice president of metallurgy, safety, health and environment. The company says it's mining less copper, and business is waning from outside sources, who would rather ship ore to coastal smelters than haul it to Flin Flon.

Dogged by negative publicity over the smelter, HudBay wants to focus attention on its newer developments, including the zinc plant it says is state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly, a new $7-million water treatment plant to clean contaminated water at its Chisel North operation and green-minded community efforts.

"Of course, the smelter has been big news, and it is a huge issue for us," said HudBay spokeswoman MaryAnn Mihychuk, who formerly served as provincial mines minister under premier Gary Doer. "But that does not negate or take away from the importance of all of our other responsibilities."

Flin Flon residents take pride in the city, which has a new boardwalk winding around tiny Ross Lake and has seen nearly a decade of volunteer effort to revegetate land left barren by tree removal and sulphur dioxide smoke.

But environmental health concerns are tough to find: There's strong civic loyalty and little Erin Brockovich-style sentiment in Flin Flon, where many resent news coverage of the soil toxicity study, and are more worried about the smelter's 200 or so jobs than its long-standing pollution.

"It's just something we wake up to every day," said Therien of the smelter. "I think the more critical issue that's facing Flin Flon is, what happens when the smelter shuts down?"

***

When Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting incorporated in 1927, ideas about sustainable mining, remediation and planned closure were virtually non-existent. Environmental issues were unexpected and city planning unheard of, resulting in a smelter in the midst of Flin Flon, and a dubious environmental legacy for its founding company.

As in other mine-dependent communities, concerns about future job prospects are par for the course in Flin Flon, where of a population of around 6,200, more than 1,400 people work for HudBay Minerals operations.

More than 200 have jobs at the smelter, donning protective overalls, respirator masks and hard hats before entering the industrial facility, where flames leap up from anode refining vessels that produce molten copper.

Smelter pay starts at around $19 an hour, and attracts those hoping to progress to mine jobs: more than 400 people work at the Trout Lake and 777 mines, in mazes of cavernous tunnels roughly a kilometre underground.

Another 300-plus people work at HudBay's zinc plant, which the company touts as using greener technology: developed in 1993 for $220 million, it releases no sulphur dioxide emissions, unlike standard zinc processing.

HudBay also highlights its other environmental efforts: a sustainability plan it's financing for the town of Snow Lake, where zinc mining is anticipated at nearby Lalor Lake, and financial support of a "Green Project" in Flin Flon and nearby Creighton, SK, that recruits hundreds of local volunteers annually to revegetate land by spreading limestone on treeless, acidic ground, with 35 hectares covered so far.

The company is also working to overhaul its massive Flin Flon Metallurgical Complex, part of which is used for mine tailings storage. Even when the complex eventually shuts down, water treatment will continue in perpetuity to prevent acid mine drainage from the old technology, said Hair.

The "mineral sector" is a different industry today than it was in the 1930s, said Mihychuk.

While some Manitoba communities are dealing with toxic waste fall-out from abandoned mines, mines are now developed with closure and remediation plans in mind: Mihychuk pointed to HudBay's recently closed Konuto mine and its old White Lake mine, shut down in the 1980s and now looking more like a grassy meadow than a former mine.

***

HudBay has also boosted public relations efforts in light of smelter coverage. Last week it hosted an unprecedented trip for five Free Press staff and freelances, paying for a charter flight to showcase its mining operations.

"We've never done it before," said Mihychuk, who said news stories focusing on the smelter and soil contamination "have painted an incomplete picture."

Since becoming a publicly traded company four years ago, HudBay has also had more environmental transparency through its annual sustainability reports, although the latest was heavier on photos of lakes and forests than on serious reductions in emissions or energy use. Mihychuk said reductions are sometimes tied to capital investments: at a time of growth, "for us to see reductions is a real challenge."

In some cases, the report includes negative effects the company didn't expect: occurrences of high sulphur dioxide emissions in Flin Flon tripled last year after six years of lower numbers, which HudBay says is due to higher production, and more days of wind blowing toward the city.

The fact that the smelter does not have technology to keep sulphur dioxide out of the air angers environmentalists, and Therien - but for different reasons. He'd like the smelter to operate beyond 2015, and thinks HudBay should have invested in the technology years ago.

Hair acknowledges the smelter "certainly dominates the environmental conversation" about HudBay, with the company's reputation lagging behind competitors in some respects.

"Obviously that is a big consideration," he said. "It's something that we'd like to address, and that's what we're working hard to do."

***

It's not known whether a health risk assessment will link chemicals in Flin Flon soil to human illness - officials have said the risk is low - or if remediation will be deemed necessary.

The future of the city without its copper smelter is equally uncertain: some residents hope HudBay's Lalor Lake exploration could mean jobs for Flin Flon residents to replace those lost at the smelter, something the company has hinted at but not confirmed.

Dave Price, a former HudBay geologist who now runs the Green Project, said although residents are nervous, there's a sense of inevitability about the smelter closing.

"I think in this day and age we all accept that we can't go pumping sulphur dioxide up the stacks forever," he said.

Therien said although HudBay says current jobs will be lost only to attrition, he's concerned for future work.

"I've got grandkids. I'd certainly like to know if they have an opportunity to work in Flin Flon, if that's what they choose to do," he said. "It scares me what happen in the future here, if the shareholders one day decide they just don't want to be here anymore."

Resident Ken Kostuchuk is a rare smelter critic: the excavator grew up in Flin Flon, and said he's suffered respiratory problems all his life. "I'm surprised that more people aren't jumping up and down about this issue," he said.

But even Kostuchuk is reluctant to see the smelter close - he said he cares about Flin Flon's future, and would rather the company pay for technology to meet emissions targets.

"Everybody loves this town," he said. "It's a beautiful town, beautiful people."

Reporter Lindsey Wiebe toured HudBay mining operations in Flin Flon and Snow Lake last week with three senior Free Press journalists and a freelance photographer on a visit organized and funded by HudBay Minerals.

lindsey.wiebe@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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