Part one of a two-part series
In nearly every second driveway, there’s a new pickup truck. Dump trucks and security vehicles rumble along Long Harbour Road as the community trundles towards new prosperity.
The scars of old prosperity remain — the most prominent being the five-million-tonne slag pile that runs along one side of the harbour, the remains of the old ERCO phosphorous plant that some believe left a bigger legacy than lost jobs.
On a ride through town, fisherman Andy Murphy gives a cancer tour, pointing out homes where, he says, residents have died from or survived the dreaded disease. He figures there’s 20 people in the town currently grappling with it, a count he believes is far too high in a place with fewer than 300 people.
Many of the homes he points out are across the harbour from the slag pile.
The slag pile has nothing to do with nickel mining company Vale, other than it had to suspend a contract to beautify the site when workers were sickened after uncovering contaminants.
But Murphy, who worked at ERCO for 14 years, is worried what the town might be facing once Vale’s nickel processing plant swings into operation in 2013, handling ore from the Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador.
Murphy has been fighting the use of Sandy Pond — a pristine lake high in the hills beyond the slag pile — as a dumpsite for mine tailings.
In his wallet, the passionate trouter carries an apology letter from Environment Minister Charlene Johnson sent to him after Vale security kicked him off another pond that is not, in fact, part of Vale’s property.
Private property signs and security gates protect the former Crown land that is now Vale property.
As The Telegram took photographs of the community on a November day, a security officer pulled up on the public Long Harbour Road and demanded to know what was being photographed and why.
Security measures, including videotaping, have been stepped up on the Long Harbour property due to the Voisey’s Bay mine strike, which has lasted more than a year.
Discounting an environmental assessment’s conclusion that Sandy Pond has few fish, Murphy says the pond boasts the best fishing in Newfoundland — thousands of four- and five-pound trout that feed on purple smelt.
“And to say they can take those fish and move them somewhere else is something like taking human beings and putting them on Mars,” Murphy says.
The Vale plan is to deposit sulphur residue from the processing facility beneath the surface of Sandy Pond to prevent it from turning into sulphuric acid.
“A few years back, we had (tropical storm) Chantal. This year we had Igor. What kind of dams are they going to construct to stop overflow?” he asks.
“It’s just a cheap way for Vale.”
Murphy is even more frightened about what might happen when treated wastewater from the hydromet processing facility is discharged in Placentia Bay.
“It’s going to be a disaster. … They say it’s going to be water fit to drink. I’d like to see someone drink it.”
He remembers ERCO’s raw effluent spill into Placentia Bay in the 1960s. One of 16 children, he’s fished the bay since he was six or seven years old, helping out on his father’s longliner with several of his 12 brothers.
“How bad it was before — the dead fish were running ashore and the cats and rats were eating the fish and the cats and rats were dying,” he recalls.
“We’d go out on the boat and we’d see the flocks of gulls — hundreds of gulls perched on the rocks and they’d jump up and go to wing and all of a sudden it was like somebody took them out with a shot gun or something. They’d drop in the water, stone dead.”
He said his father, George, would take divers out onto the harbour and the fish were “stacked six and eight feet high on the bottom — dead, rotten.”
The plant closed for awhile after the effluent spill into the bay. That got fixed, but there were also concerns about air quality and coke dust.
According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, deformed moose and rabbits were found near the plant. Snowshoe hares were dissected and tested, and high levels of fluoride were found in their bones.
Some of the slag was given to homeowners to use as a base for basement floors. However, since the slag contained uranium and thorium, which was found to emit radon gas — a carcinogen — ERCO was ordered to pay to have the material removed.
The plant closed in 1989, decimating a town that once had a population of several hundred.
Murphy is considered to be a bit of an oddball by some in Long Harbour now for his views about Vale and his environmental concerns.
“Most people just look at jobs. They don’t care,” he acknowledges.
“There are a few, but I can count them on their thumbs and big toes those who are going to speak up and say anything.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want (Sandy Pond) to go ahead, but most people are looking at it saying ‘There’s jobs, there’s jobs …’”
Despite his fears, Murphy would never pick up and leave. He resettled from a nearby island as a child to Mount Arlington Heights, a pretty coastal section of town, and then built a new home in Long Harbour proper when he got married.
“I’ve got no other choice,” he says.
“Where the hell am I going? I’m nearly 60 years old now. That’s it.”
On a rainy November day, Brenda Piercey is at her kitchen island, making Christmas cakes for her family.
Prior to Vale’s choice of Long Harbour for the hydromet plant, the town was a place for seniors, she says.
The community lost its school years ago.
She found work helping to set up mini-homes in a new subdivision in the town last winter, and has been applying for janitor work at the Vale camp, a worker motel now under construction, or at any of the Vale facilities.
“Anyone who is able to work here wants work,” she says.
“But I don’t want work to come here to the harbour only to kill us all off — what’s the point of the work, eh? I’m hoping someone is after smartening up since ERCO.”
But she says most people have to put their trust in Vale and the provincial and federal governments that the hydromet plant will be drastically different.
After ERCO closed, people either moved away or, if they were lucky enough, got on at the Come By Chance oil refinery, a 40-minute drive away. Her husband works as a day hauler truckdriver back and forth to St. John’s, an hour away.
But since Vale came in, the town is hustle and bustle again, the main road too busy to walk on. Long Harbour has a fitness centre and a new fire department. A new Vale training centre under construction will eventually be turned over to the town for use as a community centre.
Piercey doesn’t struggle to wonder what her father, Tobias, would think of it all. He died eight years ago at age 82.
ERCO set up in Long Harbour in the late 1960s, lured by millions in subsidies from the Smallwood government.
Before landing a job at the plant, Tobias Murphy, a carpenter, travelled to St. John’s, Labrador and any other place he could get work. Sometimes he was gone for months, leaving his wife Mary to keep things going at home, Piercey recalls.
“There was 13 of us. He didn’t want any dust under his feet,” she says. “That was only a few crumbs here and there to get, which was not what he wanted.
“Like he said, there is good stuff and bad stuff you can say about it. The bottom line is he was home and making good money. Dad would say the same thing now. We don’t know what’s going to come out of (the nickel processing operations). We don’t know if anybody knows. We are hoping they are going to look after us.”
Her father, she says, would have no regrets, despite the environmental problems.
“It changed our life as kids when ERCO came over. Some people don’t see that part of it (now, with Vale). … Whenever industry goes up there is something destroyed,” Piercey says.
“My dad would have gone over there anyway. … He was over there every day for 25 years. He done whatever work he could do to put food on the table.”
Long Harbour Mayor Gary Keating is watching his toddler grandson on a day off from labour relations with Pennecon.
He insists that 90 per cent of the town is in support of the Vale project. Employment is increasing slowly but steadily and he hopes eventually nearly everyone will be working.
He recently announced $25 million in expenditures, including the town’s own spending, plus construction of the motel, camp, training centre and plans for a restaurant and gas pumps, another new subdivision, and the slag pile landscaping.
Eight new homes have been built in the past year, the like of which hasn’t been seen in 20 years, says Keating, who also worked at ERCO as well as the Bull Arm offshore oil platform fabrication facility, in Fort McMurray and the Northwest Territories.
With employment at the nickel processing facility expected to create 450 jobs, along with spinoffs, Keating is hoping the town’s population will grow by another 100-150.
As for environmental concerns Keating remarks, “What happens in the future? If we could hold a crystal ball we’d know exactly what to do. But at the end of the day, any industry of that nature requires disposing of residue.
“We had a industry here 20 years ago — Albright and Wilson (also known as ERCO) — and the emissions going out in the atmosphere. Something like that we would never support again.”
He says the federal and provincial governments will safeguard the environment.
“That’s their job. We, the town, don’t have the expertise,” he says.
Monday: Visit a Nova Scotia county that traded environment for industry.