Falconbridge Granted Permit to Pollute the Groundhog River

Falconbridge might be feeling fourth time lucky after the Ontario Ministry of the Environment's recent approval and Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal okaying of their Plan (#4) to dump the effluent from a new copper-nickel mine into a sturgeon spawning ground in a pristine stretch of the Groundhog River.

Past efforts had failed to gain approval for Plan #1 to dump the toxic effluent into the coldwater brook trout fishery in Montcalm Creek, or for Plan #2 to add massive doses of EDTA to slip the effluent through toxicity tests, or for Plan #3 to build a ditch from the effluent through a newly designated provincial park which was created in large part to protect the Sturgeon fishery (actually, this was Plan #0, but it had been tossed out once already because of the park designation; that rejection was the original inspiration for Falconbridge's plan to dump the effluent into a tiny coldwater creek).

The Ministry of the Environment approved Falconbridge's newest "alternative" of constructing a 15 km pipeline from the mine site to the river in mid-August. Environmental and conservation groups challenged the approval, and hoping to force a hearing before Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal to review the controversial decision, but a narrow interpretation of the Ontario's environmental decision-making framework by the Tribunal meant the MOE decision was upheld, and Falconbridge's plan survived the challenge.

Falconbridge purchased the Montcalm nickel-copper property from Outokumpu Mines for $14 million in 2001, and is now in the process of bringing the property into production. Falconbridge is projecting that the Montcalm Project will produce a total of 5 million tonnes over its 7 years of operations, at a rate of 750,000 tonnes of ore annually. According to the plan filed with the Ministry of Northern Develoment and Mines, Montcalm ore would be milled for the first year at the Strathcona operation in Sudbury, and then at the Kidd Metallurgical Division in Timmins. Nickel concentrate would be processed at the Sudbury smelter throughout the mine's operating life, contributing 8,000 tonnes annually to Falconbridge's Sudbury nickel production.

In July 2002, Falconbridge applied to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) for a permit to construct and operate a mine water treatment system, and to discharge the mine effluent to the Groundhog River via a wetland and Montcalm Creek (Plan #1). Several months later, Falconbridge withdrew that proposal, and in January 2003 submitted a new application. The significant change in the proposal was the addition of two options for discharging mine effluent, with one option (Plan #3) being to build an 8 kilometre drainage ditch from the mine site to the Groundhog River and the other option (Plan #4) being to build a 15 kilometre buried pipeline to discharge effluent directly into the Groundhog.

Falconbridge has maintained a consistency of purpose throughout review of the several different options for getting their mine effluent to the Groundhog River. All options have the same goal in mind: get the polluted mine water into the Groundhog River, where the large volume of water in the river will "mix" with the mine effluent, hence lowering the measurable levels of contamination (proving that dilution is STILL the solution to pollution). Both the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment have acknowledged that the effluent will impact the receiving water in general and the sturgeon population in particular. MoE rationalizes this by placing the sturgeon population in a continental context and longer time frame, arguing that "it could take several years before we begin to see a local decline in the numbers of fish. The decline would be arrested when the project ceases operation assuming current exploitation levels and habitat conditions are maintained."

And all this is based on the best-case scenario that Falconbridge and their consultants have painted with respect to the acid generation and metal leaching potential of the property. Northwatch's initial concerns with the project were related to its potential to "go acid" given its close proximity to the notoriously contaminated Kam Kotia mine site, and what Northwatch is concerned has been an inadequate amount of sampling.

While Falconbridge and its consultants agree that the ore will be highly acid generating, they are predicting that the rock surrounding the ore will not be acid generating. This waste rock will be brought to surface in large volumes and any potential for it to "go acid" could have long term environmental impacts.

Acid generation leaches metals and chemicals from the rock, and makes the mine effluent more polluting as well as potentially affecting the pH levels.