Looking forward to mine reopening, as long as safety issues addressed
The fluorspar mine in St. Lawrence is poised to reopen. — Transcontinental Media file photo
Rick Rennie has four brothers in the mining industry, but when he graduated from high school he didn’t follow their lead — or the lead of many of his fellow St. Lawrence residents — by going to work in the fluorspar mine.
That might have more to do with circumstances than reluctance. The mine shut down in 1979, due to growing competition and higher-than-normal rates of lung cancer — the year before he graduated. But back then the local mining industry was troubled, and he said he probably would have sought a different career regardless.
“There were a lot of issues around the mining industry there. There was a lot of labour unrest, a lot of community protest,” said Rennie, who now works for the Workers’ Compensation Board in Manitoba. “The legacy of industrial diseases issues had kind of really come to — I don’t know if you’d really call it a crisis point, but certainly, let’s put it this way: by the ’70s, the mining industry in St. Lawrence was an industry that was surrounded by a positive atmosphere.”
So last month’s news that Canada Fluorspar Inc. — drawing heavily on $83 million in investment from French chemical company Arkema — starts working next month on reopening the mine, with an expansion of the existing mill and the construction of a new tailings facility and deep-water marine terminal, is cause for excitement tempered with concern that the mine doesn’t revisit the problems of the past.
All parties aware of safety concerns: mayor
“First of all, as somebody who grew up there and goes back there fairly often, I recognize economic development and jobs could be a very good thing for the area. At the same time, of course, it’s a town that — history hangs pretty heavily on that place.” he said. “There’s a long, dark legacy of problems with respect to health impacts from that mine, and hopefully this time around, the company and the government and so on will accept the responsibility a bit more seriously and we’ll get it right this time.”
St. Lawrence Mayor Wayde Rowsell said he’s assured that all parties involved in the mine reopening are aware of the paramount need for safety.
“Of course, we never forget the past. Having said that, all of us have to be vigilant. Health and safety has to be a priority, every hour, every day,” he said. “We’re confident, in discussions with the mining company, that they’re going to be as vigilant as anyone would be or could be. Every mining operation certainly is a risky business, but if one of the first training drills is focused on health and safety, and the potential hazards are outlined and safety laws are enforced, this mine can be as safe as any mine.”
Rennie said it seems like the community has a sense of cautious optimism about the mine’s reopening.
“I talk to people from the community — like many people do these days, through social networking, Facebook, that sort of thing. I think the mood is positive, but at the same time a lot of people, like me, vocalize a similar kind of issue, that this thing can be done right, and this time let’s do it right.”
Rennie — who wrote a book on the history of fluorspar mining in the province, “The Dirt: Industrial Disease and Conflict at St. Lawrence” — said he knows many people, including his father, with mining-related health problems.
“By my estimate, there’s probably around — between the ones we have confirmation of and the ones that I suspect, or that many people suspect were also victims that didn’t make the official count — probably up to a couple hundred men, from St. Lawrence and Lawn and all around that area,” he said.
“My father worked in the mine. He wasn’t what you’d call a regular miner. He, like a lot of people, worked there in the winters and fished in the summers. He suffered from the effects of mining and eventually died of a lung disease, like many other people there — uncles, grandfathers — there’s probably not a person in that whole community and many of the surrounding communities that wasn’t touched by this in some way.”
Rennie said the mine can be operated safely — as long as the company puts in the work and is monitored properly.
“The first thing that needs to happen is a recognition that that mine has special hazards, and I mean that with respect especially to the radiation problem,” he said. “We know now that mines in that area, the half-dozen or so mines that operated there before — I understand that this company is reopening a couple of the original developments — we know that the air in those mines is likely to be permeated by radon gas, and we know what the solution to that is. The solution to that is adequate technology by way of ventilation to remove that hazard, and also constant, and I would say independent, monitoring.
“In a situation like this, it’s imperative that, for example, the company not be left to monitor itself. I’m not going into this assuming that this company is negligent or that they wouldn’t do the right thing, but in the interest not only of the actual health and safety issues but in the interest of giving people some assurance that this thing is being done in the right way.”
They mayor said he’s sure the mining company will be safety-conscious.
“We’re very conscious of our past and of the history of the fluorspar mines,” he said. “Having said that, we know that this company is going to be health- and safety-conscious. We know that the laws of the province and country are such — it’s quite different from where we were back in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Canadian Fluorspar president Lindsay Gorrill said they’re well aware of fluorspar mining’s past problems in the area and the company will be taking steps not to revisit them.
“We’re designing our facility to take care of the water issues, the ventilation issues,” he said. “Our environmental safety plan will be top-notch, and our partners, Arkema, which is an international chemical company, is over-the-top on environmental safety, so it’s a critical part of our whole plan. We’ll have a clear plan put together before we go into production.”
Provided the health hazards are mitigated, the mayor is pleased with the expected economic impact of the mine’s reopening, including an estimated 150 full-time jobs generated — more if the mine’s success draws even more mining investment.
“We’re really, really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a major economic boost to the entire Burin peninsula, and the province,” he said. “The partnership that they’ve entered into is first class. I had an opportunity to sit in on meetings with seven world leaders in mining, seven fluorspar industrial companies, and every single one of them was excited at the prospect of developing this mine, so it indicates strongly the need for fluorspar, and certainly the resource here in our province is the best in the world, really. Very little arsenic, very high-quality, very close to international shipping lanes, very close to a community. There’s many pluses.”
It’s the minuses, though, that Rennie remembers constantly affecting his life growing up in St. Lawrence.
“I remember, for example, being a child attending the funeral of some classmate’s father or what have you, was a fairly regular occurrence for us. So certainly I have not only a professional or academic interest but also a pretty personal interest in this issue. I often say that, especially now in the context of this reopening, that the best way that people in the area and community could honour the memory of those people would be to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again.”