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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sudbury, Ontario: From Moonscape to Greenscape

Air Date: Week of

Once a severely polluted city, efforts were made on many fronts to return this landscape, devastated by nickel mining and deforestation, back to its more natural state. Bob Carty reports from Ontario, Canada on how it was done.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the middle of Canada, about 300 miles north of Toronto, is the site of what was once one of the most scarred landscapes on Earth. Sudbury, Ontario, is home to one of the world's largest metal smelting complexes, which for decades poisoned and denuded the landscape. But at the Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations honored Sudbury for turning its environment around. The city made the mining company reduce emissions to a fraction of former levels. It's planted 2 million trees. It's re-greened what once looked like a moonscape. How did Sudbury do it? What were the key ingredients of this apparent success story? We sent Bob Carty to Sudbury to find out.

(Children playing in water and laughing. Woman: "Come here, baby!")

CARTY: In the middle of Sudbury, Ramsey Lake is an oasis of deep blue waters with sailboats and canoes and kids splashing on the shore, all framed by pine trees and rugged, ancient rock. Ramsey Lake is where Bernie Picher comes to fish, where Joan Kuyek runs with her dog.

KUYEK: It's much more beautiful. I mean, it's a real treat to live in a city with 22 lakes and the green coming back. When I first moved here Sudbury looked like Mordor in Lord of the Rings. It was a terrible, ugly, ugly place. You could tell you were coming into Sudbury because 30 miles out you'd start getting a catch in your throat from the sulfur.

(Children playing and laughing at the lake.)

PICHER: We thought it was normal. When the sulfur blew through it would kill your plants. It would kill the flowers. My grandparents would have peonies out and they'd all turn brown. The leaves on the trees would wilt and die. But we really feel good about this now; you can sit here and catch a pickerel, up to 5 pounds. Nature comes back really well.

CARTY: Nature's comeback is a matter of civic celebration in Sudbury. Residents are proud to compare today's environment to what it was like when they were young. But others compare it what it was like when the country was young.

GUNN: Before the area was settled by the Europeans, we were a very dense area of lakes, crystal clear lakes, and a rich red and white pine forest, probably a meter of soil kind of covering the whole area.

CARTY: John Gunn is a scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Province of Ontario. He demonstrates how Sudbury went from idyllic forest to industrial nightmare with the help of a picture taken from space.

GUNN: What we're looking at here is a satellite image taken of the Sudbury area in 1987, and the real striking thing is the picture in the middle of the blue-gray area, and that's the devastated area around the smelters. It's one of the largest kind of localized damage sites on Earth, with almost 100,000 hectares of damage associated with the forest in this area. And right at the epicenter of that is about 20,000 hectares of barren land. We're talking complete devastation with a beautiful pine forest and the soil and shrubs and wildlife that were in those areas, gone.

CARTY: That complete devastation of the environment started in the 1870s. And as David Pearson explains, it all began with a legendary cow, a lamp, and a fire in Chicago.

PEARSON: If we'd been here about 100 years ago, or maybe 110 years ago before there was any mining activity, we might have found ourselves looking here at a logging camp, loggers taking out white pine. For example, for the rebuilding of Chicago in the middle of the 1870s. Much of the lumber for that project, after Mother O'Leary's cow had burned the city down, came from the north shore of Lake Huron and some of it from the Sudbury area.

CARTY: David Pearson teaches geology at Laurentian University, and sometimes gives historical tours of the Sudbury area. He explains that a few years after loggers cut down the white pine forests, railway workers discovered nickel near Sudbury. It was a case of good timing. Industrialists had just discovered that as an alloy in steel, nickel made armor plating impenetrable. The history of warfare would never be the same, and neither would Sudbury. The US Department of the Navy put up the money to open up nickel mines in Sudbury, and the environment paid the price. The problem was that Sudbury's nickel is found in rock that's loaded with sulfur. From before the turn of the century, and for the next 4 decades, mining companies got rid of the sulfur by using one of the most ecologically damaging smelting processes: roast beds. Three stories high, a football field wide, and more than a mile long. David Pearson.

PEARSON: All was piled here, covered with wood, and the wood was obtained from the trees in the area and that was part of devastating the landscape. And then was set alight. Those piles, those roast beds, were left burning for 2 and 3 months, and out of the bottom came the richer copper and nickel matters, it was called. And from them came clouds of sulfur dioxide that rolled across the landscape poisoning the plants and acidifying the soil. We would have found ourselves then looking at a totally barren black landscape that was as different as you could imagine, almost like another planet.

CARTY: Almost like the moon, in fact. So much so that in the early '70s, when Apollo astronauts came here to study geology, their visit gave rise to the urban myth that this was the only place on Earth you could train for a moon walk. The early 70s is when things began to change. Their provincial government told the nickel companies to improve local air quality. The biggest company, INCO, responded by building the world's tallest smokestack. The superstack did let the people of Sudbury breathe easier. It dispersed 2 million tons a year of sulfur dioxide high into the atmosphere. But that only started acidifying lakes and killing trees hundreds of miles away. The superstack became a target of the growing outrage over acid rain. The government passed tougher pollution legislation. But according to community organizer Joan Kuyek, it was a labor dispute that finally made the INCO Corporation change its ways.

KUYEK: During the 1979 INCO strike, which lasted for 9 months and was effectively won by the strikers and their wives, INCO became the most hated multinational in Canada. I think the company got really nervous, and certainly this kind of public image was not something that they needed in a place where they were tied by the ore body to the community. They can't just pick up and leave. They had to change their public relations and they knew it.

(horns blaring, construction equipment)

CARTY: INCO changed its public relations by making changes here, at its smelter plant. The company spent $560 million to modernize its milling and smelting process. Capturing the sulfur it used to burn off, turning it into sulfuric acid, which it now sells for a profit. Good ecology is good business, according to INCO's environmental coordinator Ellen Heale.

HEALE: Now as of 1994, our sulfur dioxide emissions are approximately 265,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually, which is a significant reduction in terms of emissions of approximately 90%.

CARTY: Why did the company spend that amount of money?

HEALE: Well it certainly has had a tremendous impact in terms of improvements to the quality of life in Sudbury, and also for the company in terms of productivity, energy savings, just a real all around benefit for INCO and the community.

CARTY: The reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions by INCO and other companies was the turning point resarch scientist John Gunn was waiting for. Gunn watched for changes out at a small body of water on the south side of Sudbury.


GUNN: Well, we're on the edge of Silver Lake. And Silver Lake has the wonderful distinction of being one of the most polluted lakes on Earth, where the pollution source is entirely from the atmosphere. It's called Silver Lake because it's crystal clear and it has, almost from the air you'll see it as a blue turquoise, looks like people's swimming pools.

CARTY: There are 7,000 lakes in the Sudbury area, acidified like Silver Lake. But when the smelters curtailed their emissions, Silver Lake began to recover on its own. There are still no fish, but insects have re-colonized. And in the rocky hills around it, weeds, grasses, and a few trees are beginning to take root. And that's exciting stuff for John Gunn. It shows the importance of cutting off the source of pollution. This would seem like quite an obvious idea, but back in the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, there were frequent denials that acid rain was bad for lakes and forests. There was widespread opposition to clean air legislation.

GUNN: Prior to this a lot of nay-sayers were saying well, we're sorry the damage is done, but what can we do at this stage? Sudbury shows the world that you can shut down pollution and see some natural recovery, which is really important to see, but then people can get together and industries and government can get together and start to repair something in a reasonable time frame.

CARTY: And that's what they did. The second major part of Sudbury's restoration was the re-greening program launched by the city government. Over the past 15 years, it's cost the city $15 million, about $100 per citizen. How did they get the taxpayer to go along? Well in part, people were fed up with the city's tarnished reputation. And then in the early 1980s, the nickel companies laid off hundreds of workers. So there was political support for putting the unemployed and welfare recipients to work at re-greening the barren rocks around the city. Those workers are the unsung heroes of this story. By hand they first spread lime, 5 tons per acre, to counter the acidity in the soil. Then a layer of fertilizers. Later they came back to plant seedling trees. In the past 15 years, workers have restored more than 7,000 acres of barren land and planted more than 2 million trees. And you can really see the difference, according to Professor David Pearson.

(Traffic sounds)

PEARSON: The Trans-Canada highway is just a stone's throw over to the south from where we're standing, and around us are red pine and white pine. They're about 15, 16 feet high, and they were planted just over a dozen years ago at the start of the re-greening effort in the Sudbury area. They're deliberately close to the roadside, because that was where the image of the city was going to be most easily changed, as travelers came in and out of the city. But over the slope, at the head of the slope here, just about 200 meters away from the edge of the road, the scene is very, very different.

CARTY: Let's take a look.

(A train whistles)

CARTY: Only about 25% of the damaged land around Sudbury has been treated so far. And once you walk away from the highway, up a rocky slope, you can see how much work is yet to be done. Up here, you can see for miles in all directions. A treeless plateau of blackened rock, strewn with what looks like pieces of driftwood: the gray remnants of a forest.

(Bird calls in a forest)

PEARSON: Well let's grab one of these gray pieces of wood. And it's hardly rotted; it breaks up as you work at it. But it's not breaking up and rotting in that way that it would in a normal forest, because the microorganisms that do that job in a normal forest are not here any more.

CARTY: How far have you come here in Sudbury to real restoration to the former environment?

PEARSON: We're maybe 15 years into a 100-year process of restoration here. We have the flagships of the recovery, like the trees, the masts of the ship so to speak. But all of the working parts of the ecosystem that lie below the masts of the ship, in sort of the engine room and the real working parts of biological recovery around here, the soil and all the components of it, we're only a small step into that. And there are still question marks about the sustainability of what's being done. And we really don't know whether the liming and whether the fertilization that preceded the planting of the trees is going to hold for the next 20, 30, 40 years. But there is no question, though, of the success of what's happened.

CARTY: And a lot of people are now coming to learn the secrets of Sudbury's success. Delegations from Russia, Eastern Europe, and China, are looking for solutions for their own industrial messes. Visitors learn that it has not cost the city of Sudbury that much, and that the higher costs for the mining companies were offset by productivity and profit gains. They also learn that the linchpin was the enforcement of tough pollution legislation. Still, there's a big question about Sudbury's experience. Can it be repeated today? Sudbury, after all, launched its re-greening plan in the 1980s, a time when environmentalism was gaining force, and governments were still interventionist. The 1990s are different times, times of belt-tightening, environmental fatigue, and fierce international competition. Community organizer Joan Kuyek believes Sudbury can be copied elsewhere, but only if there are people, she says, like herself, screaming and yelling outside the gates.

KUYEK: It can be replicated in places where people are willing to fight for it to happen. And where communities are, feel that this is enough of a priority that they'll shift money to it from other uses and companies, think it's enough of a priority, shift money from other things that they're doing. But building political will isn't necessarily done by people all being nice to each other. Building political will comes from knowing that there's consequences for not doing it.

(Children playing in Ramsey Lake)

CARTY: The citizens of Sudbury are happy to have lost the title of The Pollution Capitol of the World. Across Ramsey Lake there are fresh signs of how far they've come. A housing developer has actually had to cut down some trees in order to begin construction. And there's another irony here, too. According to John Gunn there's growing talk in town in support of preserving a patch of Sudbury's barren, blackened rock.

GUNN: It seems an odd thing to preserve a damaged site. But most people in the area agree, and I do, too, that the people should be able to see the contrast. It doesn't have to be a big site, but something should be left in its devastated state so the history is obvious. That people can look to the left and see where we began and look to the right and see what we have achieved.

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.



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