What about the People? Place, Memory, and Industrial Pollution in Sudbury

By Stacey Zembrzycki

A view of the slag storage area, from Gutcher Street in Gatchell, circa 1970. Anonymous local photographer.

A view of the slag storage area, from Gutcher Street in Gatchell, ca. 1970. Anonymous local photographer.

Much of the industrial ruins resulting from nearly 130 years of nickel mining in Sudbury, Ontario, are now hidden from plain sight, camouflaged under a successful re-greening program that has led to the planting of over nine million trees, and the clean-up of many area lakes and thousands of hectares of soil. And yet, despite this invisibility, vestiges of the industrial past continue to exist and do harm. “Making connections where they are hard to trace,” as Ann Laura Stoler reminds us, “is not designed to settle scores but rather to recognize that these are unfinished histories, not of victimized pasts but consequential histories that open to differential futures.”[1] Understanding the visible and invisible tolls that heavy industry has taken on residents’ bodies requires a willingness to explore these unfinished histories, a subject that is deeply implicated in an Environment Canada investigation in the region.

On October 8, 2015, Sudbury’s local media received an anonymous email stating that Environment Canada and the RCMP had spent the day “raiding” the headquarters of Vale (formerly Inco Limited) in Copper Cliff, a small nickel mining community just west of Sudbury, searching for files that pertained to a 2012 federal investigation into alleged Fisheries Act violations.[2] Nearly three weeks later, details about this investigation became public, revealing that the local mining company has been accused of allowing industrial effluents to leach into a number of local waterways since at least 1997, and perhaps even going as far back as 1963. The CBC reported that the Environment Canada warrant “accuses the company of allowing ‘acutely lethal’ seepage from the smelter waste piles into water frequented by fish, and of knowing about the leakage for years.” As an oral and public historian actively engaged in a SSHRC-funded project entitled Mining Immigrant Bodies: A Multi-Ethnic Oral History of Industry, Environment, and Health in the Sudbury Region, which examines the “inescapable ecological” relationships that have been forged between Sudburians and the landscape since the postwar period, I have spent the last year listening to stories that intersect in important ways to this latest investigation.[3]

A view of the re-greened slag storage area from Big Nickel Mine Drive, circa 2015. Author’s photo.

A view of the re-greened slag storage area from Big Nickel Mine Drive, circa 2015. Author’s photo.

Slag, which is similar to volcanic rock in appearance and contains heavy metals, is the waste by-product that results from the smelting and refining of nickel ore. The slag storage area in question has been in use since 1929 and contains more than 115 million tonnes of smelter waste. Now divided by Big Nickel Mine Drive, a busy highway that bypasses the city, the huge mounds of black slag, which have since been transformed by the mining company’s highly touted re-greening effort, once constituted the outer western edge of two working-class neighbourhoods: the West End and Gatchell.

The 2012 investigation began when a West End resident reported that light green water was flowing from the smelter waste heaps and into the city’s storm drains, which eventually lead to Nolin Creek and then Junction Creek, two waterways that, according to Environment Canada, are fish-bearing creeks. According to the warrants, Vale does not dispute that there has been run-off. Rather, it argues that Nolin Creek does not bear fish and that by the time the water reaches Junction Creek, a waterway that flows through the city and into Kelly Lake, and contains at least 16 species of fish, it is diluted. Water samples, taken from the property where the original complaint was made, showed that nickel levels were 305 times higher than regulated limits. Furthermore, tests on the substance found in the water at that time killed all fish in the sample within a twenty-four hour period; the Fisheries Act states that a sample has to kill at least fifty percent of fish within ninety-six hours to be considered “deleterious.”

Environment Canada’s current investigation focuses on local fish populations, but what about the people who have long lived in close proximity to the slag storage area, in what Stoler would identify as a “zone of vulnerability,” “where environmental degradation due to industrial pollution is great?”[4] “Place matters,” as Gregg Mitman declares, “in the making, in the experience, and in the knowledge of illness and health.”[5] To this end, Sudbury’s West End and Gatchell neighbourhoods have histories that must be considered if we are going to fully assess the environmental harm that has been done to the city’s waterways, as well as the resulting toxic legacies left in residents’ bodies. An interview I conducted in May 2015, with Frank Stradiotto is a case in point.[6] Frank is an Italian immigrant whose family came to Copper Cliff in 1948, and lived with relatives until his parents were able to purchase their own home on Dean Street in Gatchell in 1951, just a few streets east of where Inco dumped its hot molten slag. He spent the better part of our afternoon together speaking to me about the creeks and ponds of his childhood neighbourhood, and then showing me where they were located.

A creek that used to run from the slag dump, as he called it, and through the western portion of his neighbourhood was of particular importance to him:

I remember when we were going there, when we crossed the creek, we called it a creek, one that comes from the slag dump, there were logs, you know tree logs, and the truck that moved us had to go over these logs, you know like an old bush road … And it was all muddy. Many times I’d go to school and come home with one pair of boots, one boot, the other one was stuck in the mud, this deep. These were the early days.

“Where was the slag dump?” I later asked. “Where all the green is [now]” … “Would you guys go up there?” I continued. “Yeah … We stood right at the foot, as they were pouring [the slag] … It was molten. We’d, from here to there, they’d pour it and we’d watch it come down, it would come down like lava, eh.” “That’s dangerous,” I remarked. “Yeah, I know,” said Frank. This was not the first time I would hear about children, and boys in particular, using dangerous, often toxic, sites like this one as playgrounds. The snow-covered hills served as wonderful places to slide in the winter and there was always a little thrill in being yelled at or chased off the property by Inco guards.

As the conversation continued, I asked Frank to tell me more about this creek, and specifically its location. He stated: “It came down from the slag dump onto Walter Street … And then, it was an open creek and then they covered it. And when it was open, people from Walter and Dean Street, because it went in between Walter and Dean, they used to take water out of it and water their gardens.” Though the neighbourhood is changing, Gatchell remains a predominantly postwar Italian immigrant neighbourhood, where every second or third house in and around Frank’s childhood residence still has a large backyard garden.

A typical Gatchell garden, maintained by postwar Italian immigrants, circa 2015. Note the super stack in the background of the image. Author’s photo.

A typical Gatchell garden, maintained by postwar Italian immigrants, circa 2015. Note the Inco Superstack, which releases sulphur dioxide and metal particulates into the atmosphere as part of the mining process, in the background of the image. Author’s photo.

Shocked, and pondering the toxins in the water and now the soil, I asked Frank whether they had thought about where the water had come from. He simply stated: “I don’t think so, cause it looked clear…” “So people didn’t think anything about it, back then,” I reiterated. “No, no. We drank it.” “You drank it?” I exclaimed. Calmly, Frank went on: “We’d take our shoes, we used to play with it, walk in it … it was clear eh. But there were never any frogs or turtles I remember. [half laughs] We always looked for ’em, there’s no fish, there’s nothing but it was clear and there was this green algae in it…” In addition to toxic runoff making its way into the city’s storm drains and both Nolan and Junction Creeks, statements like this reminds us that it also stayed in the neighbourhood. Residents, like Frank and his gang of friends, touched and even drank it. They also watered their gardens with it, and then ate the food that grew in those gardens; high sulphur dioxide levels also meant that acid rain and the resulting toxins made their way into residents’ food chains too. The Canada program co-ordinator of MiningWatch Canada, Ugo Lapointe, recently asked “whether information contained in the warrant, especially about the levels of toxicity in Nolin Creek and Junction Creek, is the ‘tip of the iceberg.’” Stories like Frank’s suggest that public health must also be considered as part of this iceberg.

When our interview concluded, I asked Frank if he’d be willing to take me on a tour of his old neighbourhood, to show me where the creek had been. Excited, he suggested that we jump into the car and head there right away. We drove through streets and laneways looking for glimpses of the old creek but we didn’t find any. Instead, we ran into one of Frank’s old neighbours, a boyhood friend, who proceeded to confirm the existence of the creek. “Do you remember the creek? Frank asked. “Yeah … You used to hear it flowing … It comes from the slag dump,” the man told us. “Do you remember all the people that watered their garden?” Frank continued. “Yeah, oh yeah, for sure,” he replied. “Remember they died of cancer,” Frank declared. “Yeah oh yeah they had a big, like a big cauldron [that they would use to water their gardens] … Yeah, it must be still running, because it was quite the flow … in the spring, you could like hear it, like a torrent,” the man recalled. “But you remember the people who lived there watered their garden,” Frank repeated.” “Yeah, oh yeah, for sure, for sure,” the man agreed. “A lot of them died of cancer,” Frank continued. “Oh yeah, for sure,” he confirmed. Frank and his childhood friend went on to recall the old-timers who had since passed away, making clear that there was a pattern of illness in the neighbourhood. For them, incidents of cancer were tied to water.

Green water seeping down from the slag pile and entering the culvert that runs under Big Nickel Mine Drive, May 27, 2015. Author’s photo.

Green water seeping down from the slag pile and entering the culvert that runs under Big Nickel Mine Drive, May 27, 2015. Author’s photo.

After leaving the culvert, the green water makes its way through this marshy area, which runs behind the houses located on Walter Avenue. This waterway used to flow into the neighbourhood creek that Frank discusses above. Image taken from Big Nickel Mine Drive, May 27, 2015. Author’s photo.

After leaving the culvert, the green water makes its way through this marshy area, which runs behind the houses located on Walter Avenue. This waterway used to flow into the neighbourhood creek that Frank discusses above. Image taken from Big Nickel Mine Drive, May 27, 2015. Author’s photo.

Frank and I never did find the part of the creek that used to run behind his house as a child, but we did drive to the outer edge of the neighbourhood, pulling over on Big Nickel Mine Drive to examine the part of the creek that currently seeps down from the slag piles, flows into a culvert under the road, and then into a marshy area before presumably making its way into the now underground creek that Frank remembers from his youth. The water, as you can see in this video, is green in colour, and if you cross the highway, it appears to be clear, as Frank remembered, though it has not undergone any apparent form of filtration. The types of contaminants in the water, if any, and their corresponding levels are also unknown.

Vale has stated that the matter under investigation never posed a threat to Sudburians’ health and safety, especially because the water in question had no connection to the city’s drinking water sources. That said, memories, like the ones shared by Frank, force us to think deeply about this statement and the larger human implications of this Environment Canada investigation. Sudburians who live close to Vale’s mining sites of operation have spent their lives living with and adapting to the resulting toxins in their environment. They have been exposed to pollutants in the water as well as in the air and soil. In the past, the company as well as local politicians and various government agencies have told citizens that environmental toxicity levels were acceptable. What does this mean and how much exposure is too much? It is time for transparency so we can begin to understand the ways that nickel mining has affected both wildlife and human life in this community.

Stacey Zembrzycki is an oral and public historian of ethnic, immigrant, and refugee experience. She is the author of According to Baba: A Collaborative Oral History of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community (UBC Press, 2014) and co-editor of Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which won the 2014 US Oral History Association Book Award.



Many thanks to Steven High, Mercedes Steedman, and John C. Walsh for reading an earlier draft of this piece, and to Frank Stradiotto for sharing his important and timely memories about place with me.

[1] Ann Laura Stoler, “Imperial Debris: Reflections of Ruins and Ruination,” Cultural Anthropology 23, 2 (May 2008), 195-219.

[2] This investigation is just the latest in a series of major safety violations for Vale, including the deaths of four workers killed in 2011, 2012, and 2014, and a toxic nitrogen dioxide leak this past August.

[3] For more on “inescapable ecologies” see Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[4] Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 18.

[5] Gregg Mitman, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 254. Also see Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technology, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

[6] All subsequent quotes are taken from Frank Stradiotto, interview by author, Sudbury, 27 May 2015.

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5 thoughts on “What about the People? Place, Memory, and Industrial Pollution in Sudbury

  1. Rick Grylls

    Have you read the conclusion of the Sudbury Soils Study. A coverup of the historical damage to the people of Sudbury by government and industry. Contact me as I was an observer on the study.

  2. Colin MacEachern

    The small stream coming off the slag heap flows into the storm sewer under and paralell to Dean Street, crosses under Lorne Street and empties directly into Junction Creek. If you walk the Junction Creek trail between Martindale Road amd Kelly Lake Road you’ll easily spot the pipe that runs under the train tracks.

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