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The Kam Kotia Mine Disaster: Ontario's most notorious mine waste problem

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

by Gregory Reynolds
HighGrader Magazine
Fall 2002

It has been labelled the “the worst environmental disaster” in Ontario. It has been criticized by mining opponents as “corporate greed” running wild. Some taxpayers are unhappy that $14 million of their money has been spent - and $14 million more is needed - to restore 500 hectares of land left devastated after the mine closed, the miners moved on to other sites and the shareholders spent their dividends.

When the Province announced in 1999 that it was spending $27 million on a four-year Mine Rehabilitation Program, public attention was focused on the abandoned Kam Kotia mine.

Seemingly forgotten in this story, however, was the role both Ottawa and Queen’s Park played in the decision to open the mine and then walk away from the resulting mess. Also forgotten was the role of the United States, our wartime ally -- a country that has never seemed to worry much about another nation’s environment.

The clean up of the ugly swamp of acid-infused water locked between Highway 576 and the former copper mine’s remains on a ridge of rock, was certainly the biggest project on the government plate. Dead trees sticking out of the swamp and rotting vegetation create a scene from a Hollywood horror movie. Oxidation of sulphide in the mine tailings (treated remains of ore) and waste rock causes an acidic run-off affecting creeks and rivers close to the mine.

On the south side of the highway is Kamiskotia Lake, the most popular cottage area in the City of Timmins. For decades, as many of the cottages were upgraded and insulated to become year-round homes, residents complained about the environmental desolation they had to face daily as they drove the 22 mile highway drive into Timmins.

They were concerned that the lake was being polluted and the once plentiful fish were disappearing. Although experts said the lake was safe, pollution was found in the Little Kamiskotia River and some small creeks in the area.

Since water flows north to join the Mattagami River and then to Hudson Bay, pollution should not be a problem for the lake. Still, residents worried about their children and visitors swallowing the lake’s water.

In 1999, action was finally taken by the provincial government. It dressed the announcement in high-sounding language but basically it blamed the early mining companies for abandoning the property, taking away profits and leaving a mess behind for the taxpayers of Ontario to clean up.

When Ontario environmental commissioner Gordon Miller visited the site in July of 2002, he said “this is the worst case of all our mine rehabilitations in the province. It’s the biggest mess and is the highest priority of our department.”

A dam has been constructed around the contamination and a pumping facility and water treatment plant built. Some 48 hectares of tailings must be pumped into the dam area for treatment. There are about 200,000 tonnes of waste rock and six million tonnes of mine tailings on the site. One benefit has been the creation of 60 jobs short term and a handful of long term jobs at the treatment plant.

World War II Priority

In the case of Kam Kotia, the Federal government wanted copper for its effort during World War II to defeat Nazi Germany. It asked the Hollinger Gold Mine to mine the copper. At the time, there were no restrictions or concerns about pollution. Thus, even though the mine only operated from September 1943 until December 1944 its legacy lingers on.

The mine was 17 miles west (in a straight line) of the Town of Timmins. There was no road to the ore body (or the lake) and Hollinger had to send in miners to hack one through the bush.

An agreement was signed in November 1942 whereby the Wartime Metals Corporation paid all the capital and operating costs.

C. Bruce Ross, the last manager of the Hollinger, which closed in 1968, wrote in an unpublished history: “Hollinger undertook to manage the project for a fee of $1,500 per month.”

This required the diversion of staff from the Hollinger mine (then the largest gold mine in Canada and at one time the largest in the British Empire).

“Kam Kotia Mines was to receive a royalty for each pound of copper produced. A new road was constructed through heavy bush and swamp. It was completed during the winter of 1942-43. Its cost was shared by the provincial and federal government.”

When the plug was pulled in 1944, the truth came out. An agency of the U.S. government, the Metal Reserves and War Supplies Board, had initially engaged Wartime Metals to undertake the project. Once it was determined that there was sufficient cheap domestic supply in the United States, the Board stopped subsidizing the high-cost suppliers in Canada.

The mine produced 5.5 million pounds of copper concentrate at a loss of $140,223. Hollinger owned over 85 per cent of the shares of Kam Kotia Mines, whose only asset was the Kam Kotia property. Hollinger sold the company to mine developer Viola MacMillan (the long-time president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada). She re-opened it in 1960 and then sold the company in 1966 to equally famous mine developer Arthur White. He operated it until 1972.

Throughout this history, the property remained under the name of Kam Kotia Mines Ltd., which went broke in 1973, returning ownership of the land to the Crown.

For 27 years, Queen’s Park ignored repeated requests by the city to eliminate the mess, although in 1991 the province began monitoring the situation. Now, the estimate is $28 million and everyone knows what an estimate is worth. One study in the 1980s put cleanup costs at $22 million and the province didn’t want any part of a headache of that size. That is until changing times made the environment an issue with the voters.

In 2000, an environmental group, MiningWatch Canada, criticized the Federal government’s rules governing mining pollution as too weak to protect both humans and the environment. It listed three major mine-related water pollution sites in Canada, with the continued leaking of arsenic, cadmium, iron and other harmful contaminants at Kamiskotia on the list.

In 2001, then Minister of Northern Development and Mines, Dan Newman, made the following statement: “The environmental problems posed by Kam Kotia have been studied for 30 years. Our government is the first to undertake this much needed rehabilitation work.” The Minister conveniently forgot to mention that the province had owned the site for nearly two decades

The cleanup is a five-phase program and by fall the first three phases will be completed. Application has been made for the final $14 million for the last two phases but no decision has been made.

Timmins Councillor Rick Bison said in June that the contamination that leaves the site is blood red.

“It’s a very disturbing sight to see and I think the provincial government recognizes how serious it was and is doing something for it. The funding indicates it has a commitment.”

The City of Timmins was created as of Jan. 1, 1972 through a bill introduced by the Tory government of the day. The province made Timmins 1240 square miles, the largest municipality in size in Canada. And it included Kamiskotia Lake and the acid swamp.

While the 125 cottage owners and 350 people living at the lake are bitter about the long delay in addressing the site, they also tend to forget some important details. For instance, the road access to the lake, which they take for granted, came from hardrock miners who were yanked from their jobs in the middle of a war and forced to cut a road through bush and swamps and over creeks to build the Kam Kotia Mine.

Reproduced with permission.