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After the Mine: Lynn Lake, Manitoba

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

Report by Joan Kuyek

When Sherritt Gordon Mines and Black Hawk Mining had taken all the copper, zinc, nickel and gold they could get out of Lynn Lake, Manitoba, they closed their mines and took their profits, but they left millions of tonnes of toxic tailings and a devastated community behind.

Sherritt-Gordon used their profits from northern Manitoba to build the basis for a number of very profitable companies, including Agrium, Dynatec and Sherritt International. Sherritt International is the main proponent in the controversial Cheviot Mine. Black Hawk is now Glencairn Resources, owner of the Limón Mine in northwest Nicaragua, the Bellavista Mine in Costa Rica (under construction), and a number of exploration properties.

Now the Marcel Colomb Cree First Nation and the Town of Lynn Lake are working together to heal the land and reclaim a future for their children. On April 15, they met with five Ministers of the Manitoba Government to present their case one more time. The Manitoba Government had been responsible for protecting the public interest in the operation of these mines; they also collected any royalties and taxes that they paid.

Marcel Colomb First Nation and the Town have requested the following from the Manitoba government:
• A new water system. The old one has been corroded by tailings (the acidic toxic waste left behind after ore is extracted), until the tap water is the colour of tea.
• A proper health assessment of the impact of tailings on the community: the only study done to date includes no human testing, no medical or epidemiological studies
• Clean-up and proper management of the abandoned tailings areas, which cover over 250 hectares beside the town.
• Support for the development of an urban reserve in the Town of Lynn Lake.
• Support for the Town's court case to get $6 million in unpaid back taxes from Black Hawk.

History of mining

The Lynn Lake ore body was discovered in 1941, but Sherritt Gordon had been mining at Sherridon, 250 kilometres away, since 1931. When the Sherridon ore body was depleted, the company built 120 housing units at Lynn Lake and the first mining began in 1952. Sherritt Gordon Mines Ltd. opened the A Mine in 1953, and then the Farley Mine in 1961. These were nickel/copper/zinc mines. The town population peaked in 1975 at about 3000.

The mine started to run into problems after 1976, and the Town began a desperate search for other economic activity. The opening of the Fox Mine (48 kilometres southwest of Lynn Lake) in 1961 held off disaster, but with the closure of the Fox Mine in 1985, Sherritt Gordon and the Government of Canada undertook a $9 million project to diversify the economy. The NorthWest Community Futures Corporation was established to "facilitate private and local community involvement in planning and economic development strategies, and the communication of these results to interested groups."? Sherritt Gordon used the money to retain the experienced mining industry workforce until they could open the MacLellan Mine (an underground mine with an estimated 5 year life), and to retrain the workers as gold miners, as well as to transfer employees to the nearby Ruttan Mine (which they also owned). Manitoba contributed a $2 million loan from the Community Reserve Fund to the MacLellan Mine development. The mine closed a few years later.

The project also gave birth to the Canadian Association of Single Industry Towns - formed to advocate the case of dying resource towns and to change government policy toward them. After a very active few years of life, CASIT disbanded.

From 1997-2000, Black Hawk Mining operated the Keystone Gold Mine on the edge of the town. They took the final gold out in December of 2001, owing the town over $3 million in back taxes. Mayor Audie Dulewich order the bailiff to seize the last helicopter of gold against the taxes. The gold was released when the company agreed to post a $250,000 bond. The case has been in court ever since and the amount owing has escalated to $6 million.

Aboriginal Peoples

There is a large Cree and Métis population in the region, many of whom are from the Pukatawagan Reserve 80 kilometres to the south. The reserve had few jobs and inadequate housing, and out-migration was and is common.

Lynn Lake is home to the Marcel Colomb First Nation, which was established as a band in 1999, when it separated from Matthias Colomb First Nation. It is a member of the Swampy Cree Tribal Council. The band is in the process of seeking funds to build housing and infrastructure on a small reserve 40 kilometres outside Lynn Lake. Lynn Lake is the starting point for the winter road network leading north to the communities of Brochet, Lac Brochet and Tadoule Lake. The community of Kinoosao is at the end of road 394 in the region. Lynn Lake functions as a regional service centre providing transportation, health care and retail outlets. It has an airport, rail line and road. The region covers 20% of the land mass of the province but has 1% of the Province's population.

First Nations population in the town began to increase as housing became available, first as a tent city, then as squatters, and then as housing was renovated with CMHC help, as tenants. The major focuses of the NWCFDC were tourism, distribution and public administration. The Friendship Centre plays a mediating role, by involving neighbouring Native communities in the economic discussions. NWMCFDC works with native leaders from surrounding communities. Lynn Lake has become a service centre for Native people. In addition to the reserve 40 kilometres away, the Marcel Colomb First Nation have also made inquiries about an urban reserve in the Town site. The major barrier to this is the toxic tailings in the town.

Health and Environment Issues

Sherritt Gordon left behind 21.8 million tonnes of tailings in the Eastern Tailing Management Area, covering more than 200 hectares. A number of streets, lanes and properties used tailings for backfill in the early 1970s. There are a further 11 contaminated sites in the community. The ETMA tailings are dry and uncovered and generate dust storms on a regular basis.

Black Hawk deposited tailings underground in the dis-used stopes of the Farley and A mines, deposited overflow in the North and South Ponds and also created their own tailings management area (the Western Tailings Management Area). The WMTA is water covered and contained by dams. Leakage from the EMTA runs into the WTMA. Because the Black Hawk Mine was a gold mine, cyanide is a likely contaminant.

In 2001, the Government of Manitoba agreed to fund and complete a "Human and Environmental Health Risk Assessment"? of the EMTA and the tailings used as backfill. It looked at neither Fox Lake nor the WTMA. The Environmental and Health Risk Assessment (ERA and HHRA) was to evaluate exposure pathways, and evaluate degrees of impact on the natural environment. The Town of Lynn Lake paid for a critique of the study by a consulting company called Santec. In January 2004, the Town wrote to the government setting out their concerns with the study.

Concerns about the report include the following:
1. It did no human sampling for metals, and no medical or epidemiological studies.
2. The ERA does not adhere to the CCME protocols or EPA protocols which were specifically cited in the Terms of Reference
3. Certain exposure pathways that could involve greater exposure to tailings (hiking hunting) are obvious in their omission; others underestimate exposure factors
4. Dermal (skin) absorption pathways are handled incorrectly and are under estimated
5. Certain "receptors", such as worms, are conspicuous by their absence.
6. The benchmarks used in the ERA are inconsistent: some are conservative, others are not.
7. There are no risk management recommendations in the Report.
8. The impacts of the WMTA and other potentially cumulative sources were not included in the study.
9. Soluble nickel is not considered carcinogenic despite considerable controversy on this subject.
10. Cyanide is not included in the contaminants.

The HHRA found that there were concerns with aluminum, copper, nickel, cadmium and cobalt, but that "the exposures to metals in the environment are not expected to result in adverse human health effects for people living in the town over a lifetime."? Residents however say that there are cancer clusters and elevated levels of Krohn's disease. They want human health studies, not risk assessments. According to Dr. Tom Hutchinson, the Chair of the Environmental Science Department at Trent University, the health risk assessment model used is based on a theoretical model that has yet to find health risks at any of the contaminated sites where it has been used in Canada, including Deloro, Ontario, and the Sydney Tar Ponds.