From moonscape to greenscape
The Vale Living with Lakes Centre in Sudbury, Ontario, has brought environmental success to a whole new level
Sudbury, Ontario, was one of the most notorious sites on earth in regards to environmental damage. Thirty years ago, when Dr. John Gunn looked out the window at Laurentian University, the landscape was barren and black. This "moonscape," or devastated landscape, was due to hundreds of years of mining and smelting in the region. Now Gunn, who is the Canada Research Chair for Stressed Aquatic Systems, can proudly look out his window at a greener Sudbury, where the community's citizens are swimming in the lakes, eating fresh walleye and feeling proud of their community.
The city—which once had 7,000 acid-damaged lakes, 80,000 hectares of near barren landscape around the smelters where very few plant species survived, populations of sport fish lost, massive areas of impacted agricultural land and significant air pollution—is now a winner of multiple environmental awards for restoration and has won numerous conservation and reclamation prizes.
Continuing the research
Sudbury's environmental achievements have now reached a new level. The Vale Living with Lakes Centre at Laurentian University officially opened on August 25, 2011. The centre was conceived as a unique centre of excellence for the study of northern aquatic systems and their health and remediation, with an additional emphasis on effective science communication. This work had been pursued since 1989 by the Co-operative Freshwater Ecology Unit, a partnership of Laurentian University, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The Vale Living with Lakes Centre was designed to support and grow the Co-op unit partnership and to provide appropriate space for scientists and researchers working through Laurentian and its partners on issues like climate change, invasive species and industrial development in northern ecosystems.
Construction began in June of 2009, with support from the Ontario government as well as through the federal government’s Knowledge Infrastructure Program to enhance research and facilities in the province’s colleges and universities. Vale, a global mining company that employs 119,000 people and has projects on five continents, committed to funding the project, with a donation of $4.5 million in 2008.
Gunn said that through responses of industry to government regulations, Sudbury has reduced air pollution by more than 90 per cent since the 1960s.
“In the 1960s, the three smelters here would have represented the largest point of sulphur dioxide on earth," he said. "That is several times the amount that countries like Japan produce today. We would have, in those days, been two or three Japans . . . if you can wrap your head around that.”
Gunn believes it all started with the mining industry modernizing its smelters and processes.
“They were able to reduce all kinds of costs, particularly energy costs while they modernized under regulations and became a much more efficient, profitable industry,” said Gunn. “Some would argue this was achieved because of regulations and I would support that idea. Half of our damaged lake trout populations are back, lichens and other sensitive plants have colonized right to the edge of the smelter and the community and the industries have assisted by planting about 13 million trees to add to the natural vegetation recovery.”
Committed to going green
Vale has a long history in Sudbury. Angie Robson, manager of corporate affairs for Vale’s Ontario operations, said the company has reduced its sulphur dioxide emissions in Sudbury by 90 per cent and it has put a lot of time, effort, money and resources into reducing its air emissions.
“In partnership with Xstrata, another major mining company in the city—along with Laurentian University, the greater city of Sudbury and other stakeholders in the city—we’ve put in place massive efforts to regreen the city,” said Robson. “We operate two greenhouses, one underground at the Creighton Mine and the other is a surface greenhouse in Copper Cliff. We grow seedlings and have donated 75,000 trees to the city. We also send up planes to aerial seed areas where there is distressed land. All of these initiatives together have come a long way in terms of reducing our environmental footprint on the city and becoming a more sustainable operation.”
Vale is also investing $2 billion to further reduce its sulphur dioxide emissions, a further 80 per cent from current levels. This will take Vale's total emissions basis well under regulatory limits for 2015, when its project Clean AER (Atmospheric Emissions Reduction) is complete.
“The Living with Lakes Centre is yet another demonstration of our commitment to sustainability," said Robson. "In Sudbury, we have 330 lakes within the boundaries of our municipality, so this research is not only very important to our operations here, it’s important because the findings from the research that is being done can certainly be applied to our operations all over the world."
Taking sustainability beyond the city
Researchers at the centre are working with other mining companies as well. They are embarking on a 5-year study with Xstrata and Vale on a major project to see how land reclamation—particularly natural wetland construction—can assist in improvements of downstream waters.
“Getting at the idea of how does healthy land promote healthy receiving waters and focusing on the types of trees and types of vegetation that speed the recovery of damaged waters is the key here,” said Gunn. “This study will help us decide how to rehabilitate landscapes that will get double the benefit of improving downstream waters at the same time.”
They are also working with De Beers Canada in the Hudson Bay Lowlands on how to restore peatlands. This De Beers site is on the third largest wetland on earth. One of centre’s scientists, Daniel Campbell, is working with the company to find ways of restoring roadways and waste piles as well as other areas of these large peatlands in order to reclaim these sites as quickly as possible.
“We have numerous other projects with mining companies across Ontario, in conjunction with Ministry of Environment, to develop water standards for water quality assessment,” said Gunn. “These are biological standards. We do the pre-disturbance assessment of streams and lakes to understand what the particular biological communities might be in each different region, so that after disturbance, we have targets for rebuilding these communities. We preserve original materials, voucher specimens and materials saved if spills ever occur, so that we will know what the original communities were in rivers and lakes in the various mining regions.”
The centre has also been designed to achieve the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum level, the highest certification in the LEED rating system for green buildings. It is estimated that the efficient design of the Vale Living with Lakes Centre—a success story for mining and the environment—will save more than $1 million in energy and water costs over the next 25 years.