The Voisey's Bay Project and the Environment

The Voisey's Bay project, like all industrial developments, has the potential to do considerable damage to the environment if not properly managed by industry and by the government. In order to extract ore from the ground, separate it from rock, and ship it to market, the mining industry must inevitably disturb the surrounding ecosystem. This may involve the release of toxic materials and other pollutants into the environment, the destruction of wildlife and wildlife habitat, and the contamination of food, water and other natural resources used by nearby communities.

A variety of environmental concerns are connected to the Voisey's Bay project. Large quantities of fuel, oil, and other hazardous materials are required to separate nickel from the ore, and these substances may accidentally spill into the natural environment. Waste products known as tailings are created during the processing of ore and could release acid into the environment if not disposed of properly. Dust generated at the mine and the concentrator could compromise air quality and penetrate nearby lakes and rivers, which would damage fish species. The location of the mine and its associated shipping routes could also interfere with the overall wellbeing of the surrounding ecosystem, thus affecting seals, seabirds, caribou, and bears.

Petroleum, Tailings, and Other Pollutants

The mining process uses a variety of potentially dangerous substances such as fuels, oils, grease, aerosols, antifreeze, methanol, and equipment batteries. Chemicals can enter the ecosystem during production due to spills, equipment failures, human error, and other accidents. This poses a serious threat to public health, air and water quality, wildlife, wildlife habitat, and the general wellbeing of local ecosystems.

Petroleum spills are among the most serious concerns linked to the mining industry because large quantities of fuels, oils, greases, and other hydrocarbons are required to power and maintain the machinery involved. In 2006, for example, the Voisey's Bay project used approximately 30 million litres of diesel fuel and 35,000 litres of gasoline. The company reported two hydrocarbon spills that year – 350 litres of diesel fuel wasted onto the mine site after a large rock damaged a fuel tank, and 200 litres of hydraulic oil spilled onto a road due to equipment failure. According to Vale Inco's 2006 Environmental Performance Report, the wasted hydrocarbons did not contaminate any waterways and both spills were contained.

Another major concern is that toxic materials known as tailings may enter the environment and become pollutants. Tailings are the waste materials that remain after precious minerals have been removed from ore. They include ground-up rock, water, metals, hydrocarbons, and other chemicals used in the extraction process. Tailings are produced in large quantities at the Voisey's Bay concentrator, and will also be produced at the Long Harbour processing plant once it opens in 2013.

Since the mineral resource at Voisey's Bay contains highly reactive sulphide minerals, the tailings may release acid into the environment if treated improperly. It is therefore critical that Vale Inco properly disposes of this toxic byproduct. One method, which Vale Inco has adopted at Voisey's Bay, is to dump tailings underwater in a nearby pond or lake. Dams and waterproof liners prevent the tailings from entering other waterways and from seeping into the ground below the pond. Risks do exist, however. Tailing ponds may attract caribou, ducks, and other wildlife, which brings them into contact with toxic material and may lead to sickness or death. Breaches can occur in the pond liner and allow tailings to contaminate surrounding areas.

Vale Inco pumps Voisey's Bay tailings into Headwater Pond, about nine kilometres east of the mine. To prepare the site, the company built 12-metre high dams at the head and mouth of the pond, installed a pond liner, and relocated fish from Headwater Pond into another body of water, known as Pond 61. Despite these efforts, accidents have occurred. A breach in the pond liner in May 2006 released approximately 1,100 cubic metres of tailings water into nearby Camp Pond Brook. In November 2007, equipment failure along the pipeline carrying tailings from the concentrator to the pond caused about 50 cubic metres of tailings slurry to spill onto a road and a nearby bog.

The Voisey's Bay mine produces a variety of other hazardous wastes, including old batteries, oil filters, empty aerosol containers, antifreeze, greasy rags, waste methanol, waste carbon, and a range of other chemicals and materials. Workers are expected to dispose of all of these products in a manner that is as environmentally responsible as possible.

Dust and Greenhouse Gases

Dust is a major concern at mine sites and can affect both air quality and nearby waterways. Land clearing, bulldozing, blasting, crushing and conveying ore, trucking materials along unpaved roads, ship loading, and a variety of other activities can all cause dust, which becomes suspended in the air. Wind can carry the dust to other areas.

Dust particles may include heavy metals and toxic chemicals that could settle on plants or in nearby bodies of water, and compromise the overall health of surrounding ecosystems. Human beings run the risk of developing respiratory and other health problems. Generally, dust particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (one micrometer, or micron, equals one thousandth of a millimeter) are considered to pose the greatest health risk to humans because they are small enough to penetrate air sacks in the lungs.

Monitoring stations exist at the Voisey's Bay to test the air for small dust particles, as well as for nitrous oxides and other chemicals. Vale Inco stated in it 2007 Environmental Performance Report that dust levels at the port site exceeded recommended levels three times in 2007 – once in April and twice in August. The company attributed the elevated levels to high winds and the creation of dust while cleaning the ship loader and conveyor system.

Other major air pollutants created at mining sites are greenhouse gases including nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. These are released by burning fuel to operate vehicles and machinery, and to perform other tasks. Vale Inco reported that its diesel-powered generating station created about 96,000 megawatt-hours of electricity for the Voisey's Bay site in 2007; this indicates a fuel consumption of over 24 million litres. A megawatt hour is equal to 1,000 kilowatts supplied for a period of one hour. In addition are the gases released by trucks, marine vessels, and other vehicles and machinery needed to excavate, process, and ship Voisey's Bay ore.

Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat

Mining operations can interfere with local animal species by destroying or altering habitat, releasing pollutants into the environment, and creating noise and other disturbances. The species most likely to be affected by the Voisey's Bay project include caribou, bears, seals, seabirds, and fish. There is also concern that the project may contaminate foodstuffs traditionally harvested by local Innu and Inuit communities.

Shipping activities have the potential to disturb seal and other marine mammals by creating noise and breaking up sea ice. An oil spill could occur which might severely damage the marine ecosystem. Under its agreement with the Labrador Inuit Association, Vale Inco is not allowed to ship ore out of Labrador during a six-week period at the start of winter, when ice is forming, and again during the spring, when the ice is unlikely to refreeze. This arrangement is meant to ensure that shipping activities do not destroy the important ice habitat used by seal populations.

Seabirds also use this area of Labrador. Harlequin ducks breed here, but mining could disrupt mating habits. This seabird is currently considered a Species of Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) because of its small population. Colonies of black guillemot also exist along the shipping route and passing ore carriers may disturb the seabirds' breeding and other activities.

The Voisey's Bay project uses large quantities of water to process the ore, which is then recycled at a wastewater treatment plant and discharged into Anaktalak Bay. Though Vale Inco studies in 2007 showed that the bay's water quality had not been affected by this practice, the possibility does exist that wastewater might harm the health of fish and other marine life. For example, the company found evidence in 2007 which suggested that discharged water reduced the weight of juvenile and adult mussels.

The mine site also encompasses some caribou and black bear territory. Noise, human activity, airborne pollutants, and loss of plant life within the project area may affect these animals, but the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency stated in a 1999 panel report on the Voisey's Bay project that the impact will probably be minimal.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the mining process has the potential to damage surrounding ecosystems in many ways. Therefore, it is important that industry, government, and conservationists work together to identify potential environmental dangers, set strict operating guidelines, and closely monitor the project's impact on the environment.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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