Mining and Health: Digging for the Truth

Mining and Health: Digging for the Truth

Description of Issue


One of the oldest industries poses serious risks to the health of Canadians and the environment!

The history of mining in Canada is virtually as old as colonial settlement across the nation. Mining was often the reason that settlements formed as colonization occurred. First Peoples in Canada did use minerals for various items but the mining that we know today started when settlers came to the New World. Thus, the issue of mining and health often causes rifts within groups, neighbourhoods, cities, and municipalities. This is especially true in towns and locations where mining is the key industry.

Nurses recognize that a steady income is an important social determinant of health for Canadian families. However we would be remiss if we did not examine the health consequences that families and the environment are exposed to in the name of jobs, the economy, and access to metals and minerals.

Some of the harmful effects of mining on health and the environment include:

  • Land destruction
  • Destruction of ecosystems
  • Wildlife effects
  • Air and rain pollution levels due to Sulfuric acid and other contaminants
  • Ground water contamination
  • Tailing pond leaks affect lakes, rivers

Mining effects on Rainfall Drainage

The Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is the number one environmental problem facing the mining industry. AMD occurs when sulphide-bearing minerals in rock are exposed to air and water, changing the sulphide to sulphuric acid. It can devastate aquatic habitats, is difficult to treat with existing technology, and once started, can continue for centuries (Roman mine sites in Great Britain continue to generate acid drainage 2000 years after mining ceased).

Acid mine drainage can develop at several points throughout the mining process: in underground workings, open pit mine faces, waste rock dumps, tailings deposits, and ore stockpiles.

Mining and Ore Waste

Mining waste takes up a great deal of space, blights the landscape and often affects local habitats. By its very nature it can constitute a serious safety hazard. Poor management may allow acidic and metals containing drainage to the environment, it can result in contaminated dusts be spread by the wind, and can also pose a physical risk. Indeed, the failure of structures such as dams built to contain mining waste has lead to many accidental spills with extremely serious consequences.

Mount Polley Disaster

This mining disaster occurred in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia beginning on August 4, 2014 with a breach of the Imperial Metals-owned copper and gold mine tailings pond which released its water and slurry with years worth of mining waste into Polley Lake. The spill flooded Polley Lake, its outflow Hazeltine Creek, and continued into nearby Quesnel Lake and Cariboo Creek. By August 8th the four square kilometres sized tailings pond was empty. Water tests showed elevated levels of selenium, arsenic and other metals.To make matters worse, Imperial Metals apparently had a history of operating the pond beyond capacity since at least 2011.

The spill has been called one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history, which has been adamantly denied by BC government!

View the following video “National Call To Action: April 29 Stop Mt Polley from reopening” and consider the concerns of the local First Nations peoples.

You can also read the accompanying news article, First Nation group launches protest to halt re-opening of Mount Polley mine in the April 30, 2015 edition of the Vancouver Observer.

Is This the Future of Kamloops?

Canadian Association of Nurses for the EnvironmentThe Danger of Environmental Impact is very high: is it worth the economic value?

For the past 3 years over 87,000 people in Kamloops have lived under threat of a huge open pit gold/copper mine 1.4 km from the city boundary. KGHM International, a Polish owned multinational corporation in conjunction with Abacus Exploration, initially planned an open pit 2.5 km wide and 1 km long with a depth of 500 meters, North and East waste rock facilities, and a 150 meter dry tailings storage facility measuring 1km by 3 km adjacent to the Coquihalla Highway. Early indications were that their application (AIR) would be filed with the BC EAO and CEA Agency by fall, 2013.

Citizen participation was sought by Provincial and Federal Environmental Ministries through a Community Advisory Group (CAG), a Technical Working Group and First Nations communities. All three groups have worked in isolation and work has been sporadic.

The proponent held public information sessions with a limited number of registrants admitted to each session. Three community response groups also emerged: Kamloops Area Preservation Association (KAPA), Kamloops Physicians for a Health Environment (KPHE) and Kamloops Moms for Clean Air. In collaboration, they have raised funds to provide educational resources throughout the community, host guest speakers and hold public demonstrations.

In late summer, 2013, the proponent announced that due to further discovery of ore bodies their AIR application would be delayed. In May, 2014, KGHM unveiled a revised site plan including a wet tailings pond to replace the dry tailings stack in the original plan, a deeper mine pit, with more southerly placement of tailings, stock piles and storage facility.

The Ajax mining proposal has been highly controversial pitting neighbour against neighbour. Some believe the mine will benefit the community with high paying jobs while others strongly oppose its environmental impact and potential adverse health consequences. The silent majority await further information when the Application Information Requirements (AIR) document is released in March, 2015.

Meanwhile air quality in the Kamloops air shed is already compromised. Our air quality falls short of provincial Air Care Objectives (8 micrograms/m3) at approximately 9 micrograms/m3 annually. To date an independent Health Impact Assessment has not been carried out.

Watch the timely and very informative 28 minute video below entitled, “Is This the Future of Kamloops?”


Learn More About this Threat!

For more information please visit:

  • Stop the Ajax Mine
  • Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment Society
  • Kamloops Moms for Clean Air
  • A Brief on the potential Health Impacts of the KGHM Ajax Mine
  • As these sites demonstrate, the risks to the land, water, people, animals, fish, and fowl in BC are enormous. No amount of money is worth these risks. The actual profit gained by Canada is minuscule compared to the costs that just one tailing pond leak would cost.

A Review of the Environmental and Health Impacts of Mining on First Nations Peoples in Ontario

The Boreal Forest

Canada’s boreal forest is an unbroken span stretching from the Yukon to the Atlantic; at 5.9 million square kilometres, the forest occupies about 25% of the land area of North America (Ontario Nature, 2013b). It is a globally important ecosystem that contains vast expanses of woodlands that are rich in wildlife (Ontario Nature, 2013a). Thirty percent of it is covered by wetlands, an estimated 1.5 million lakes, and some of the country’s largest river systems (ibid). These wetlands act like a giant system of sponges, absorbing and filtering water and releasing it slowly into the surrounding landscape, which results in protection from flooding, cleaner water and higher water tables (ibid). The boreal forest holds one of the largest reservoirs of fresh water in the world (Ontario Nature, 2013a). It plays a critical role in mitigating global climate change by storing massive amounts of carbon in its soils and wetlands (ibid).

It contains hundreds of species of plants and is also home to a wide variety of wildlife ranging from black bears to billions of migratory bird species, many small mammals and an abundance of game fish (Ontario Nature, 2013a; Government of Ontario, 2015). The boreal forest is the single most important breeding ground for birds in Canada (Ontario Nature, 2013b), with an estimated 300 species and 2 billion individual birds which breed in the region before migrating south (ibid). It also provides habitat for more than 20 species at risk (Ontario Nature, 2013a), like the golden eagle, woodland caribou, polar bears, wolverines, lake sturgeon and a variety of plants (Royal Ontario Museum, n.d.; Government of Ontario, 2015).

First Nations Traditional Territory

First Nations people have inhabited this region for thousands of years (, n.d.; Wilkes, 2011). Their original homeland was immense, stretching from the northern reaches of the plains to the southeastern shores of the Great Lakes (Warren, 2015). They regard the land as a gift from the Creator to their people, and it belonged to everyone in the tribe (ibid). The fundamental essence of life is unity and the oneness of all things (ibid). Principles of relationship, interdependence and respect form an ecological compact between humans and all other beings in creation (Wilkes, 2011). Ancestral lands are therefore considered sacred to the First Nations people – essential to their culture, language and traditions. In addition, the gathering, harvesting and hunting of traditional foods is still practiced in many communities today (ibid). The industrial presence on traditional lands has been described as the toxic invasion of North America (ibid). After surviving centuries of racism and discrimination, colonialism, forced relocations, prohibitions against practicing their cultural and spiritual beliefs, residential school systems, intergenerational trauma and a wide variety of abuses, First Nations now have to contend with has been termed environmental racism – that has led to a variety of negative ecological impacts on their homelands (ibid).

In northwestern Ontario, this traditional territory is now governed by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which covers about two-thirds of the province and is home to 49 communities scattered across this area (The Canary Research Institute for Mining, Environment and Health [TCRIMEH], 2006). The majority of the First Nations are isolated with a total on-reserve population of almost 40,000 (ibid). The unemployment rate is high in most communities; as a result, social transfer payments account for the bulk of family income (ibid). Apart from the isolation and lack of employment opportunities, other difficulties include poor housing, poor community services and infrastructure, inadequate medical and dental services, and a lower standard of education (ibid).

Recently however, many First Nations have been faced with potential economic development in their traditional territories, due to the arrival of various sectors of the resource industry, including forestry, mining and energy. (TCRIMEH, 2006). It has always been the desire of the NAN to break the cycle of dependency and become viable, self sufficient communities (ibid). NAN are attempting to set up a resource management decision making process so that the minerals found on sacred land will be managed on an integrated basis – taking First Nation Treaty Rights and environmental responsibilities into account, along with the interests of both the province and country (ibid).

History of Mining in Ontario

Nishnawbe Aski NationsIn the 1800s, miners used picks and shovels to find and extract minerals (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010). Embarking out into the wilderness of Ontario, prospectors had free entry to access any land that contained Crown-owned minerals (ibid). They could stake their claims with wooden posts and acquire mineral leases with no need to consider the interests of property owners or the public (ibid). This right of free entry was a fundamental feature of Ontario”s first mining laws and was designed to promote mining activity, create wealth in the province and encourage the settlement of the north (ibid).

Today, Ontario is Canada’s leading mining jurisdiction and is the source of 30% of the total value of the nation’s metal production (MiningWatch Canada, 2009). Currently, over 5.4 million hectares of the province’s lands are under active mining claims, representing an area larger than Prince Edward Island (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2014). The total value of mineral production has been estimated at over $9.8 billion (Ontario Mining Association, 2012). In 2014, there were 38 operating mines in Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2014).

The Ring of Fire

A significant mineral discovery was made in the so-called Ring of Fire located about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay (Ontario Nature, n.d.). It is an area of roughly 5,120 square kilometre located in the boreal forest that has been subject to intense claim staking, prospecting and exploration ever since nickel, copper and zinc were discovered in the area in the late 1990s (Ontario Nature, n.d.; Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010). The area also consists of one of the world’s largest chromite discoveries (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Chromite is a mineral that consists of iron oxide and chromium (Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2015). Demand for it is high worldwide, particularly in countries like China, which is the largest consumer of ferrochrome, an alloy made from chromite used to produce stainless steel (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Chromite is also a strategic mineral used in the production of missile components and armour plating (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010).

The human carcinogenicity of chromium is well established (MiningWatch Canada, n.d.; Public Health Ontario, 2015). Mining and smelting wastes can still contain chromium and other heavy metals and chemicals of concern (MiningWatch Canada, n.d.). Exposure to chromium can occur from skin absorption, inhalation, drinking or consumption of contaminated soil, water, food or dust (ibid). Skin contact can cause inflammation, eczema, open sores and allergic contact dermatitis (ibid). Ingestion can cause nausea, vomiting, anemia, kidney, stomach, liver and intestine damage (ibid.). Inhalation can irritate the nose, throat and lungs, produce inflammation, cause nosebleeds, ulcers and holes in the septum, asthma, lung cancer and a variety of other cancers (ibid).

The deposits in the Ring of Fire have attracted international attention from the mining industry (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Companies have now staked 9,000 claims in the region (ibid). Due to the location of the finds, remote First Nations communities will experience most of the social, health and environmental impacts from these projects (ibid).

Ontario Mining Legislation

Although the Mining Act and the concept of free entry may have worked in the 19th century, it is clearly at odds with current land use management strategies (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010). In October 2009, Bill 173, the Mining Amendment Act, 2009, received Royal Assent, concluding a multi-year process to bring Ontario”s Mining Act into the 21st century (ibid). Among the amendments:

  • encouraging mining activities in a manner consistent with the recognition of existing First Nations treaty rights;
  • incorporating consultation with First Nation communities in mining legislation and regulations;
  • and finally, introducing a dispute resolution process for First Nations-related mining issues (ibid).

First Nations Treaty Rights

First Nations Treaty Rights are collective rights affirmed within the Canadian Constitution of 1982. When this issue has been challenged, the courts have consistently ruled in favour of the continuing efficacy of these rights.

However, if minerals of economic value are found on any traditional territory, they could be developed into mines whether the land is privately owned, subject to First Nation land claims, or already used for other purposes that are incompatible with mining (Ontario Nature, n.d.). The reason behind this is that the free entry system already described: individuals who pay $25 to obtain a prospector”s license can stake as many claims as they like, as long as they pay a nominal claims registration fee and perform at least $400 annually of assessment work (ibid). As a result, First Nations communities have had to issue moratoriums, or stage blockades to protest unwanted mining activity on their lands (ibid). The problem is that the treaties have been interpreted by governments as land surrender agreements, rather than the land sharing agreements First Nations communities thought they had signed (Wilkes, 2011).

The issue of treaty rights is set against a possible economic boom which makes this a complex situation. Figures show that mining is the largest private sector employer of First Nations in Canada, accounting for about 7.5% of the total mining labour force (Ontario Mining Association, 2012). Northern Ontario’s mine supply and service sector is worth an estimated $5.6 billion a year and provides an additional 23,000 jobs to the area (ibid). While the short-term interests of a mine should be measured against the long-term impacts on health, water and air quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and community interests (ibid), this does not always happen. Even when mineral development results in economic growth, the benefits are not always shared equitably, and local communities closest to the source of development can suffer the most after a mine closes and stops producing revenue (Ontario Nature, n.d.).

It is not surprising that the resolution of divergent rights, the right to explore or develop a mine versus the community”s right to manage its traditional territory remains an issue in several regions across Canada (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Some First Nation communities who have found mining companies unresponsive to their concerns have been forced to assert their rights in court (ibid; Union of Ontario Indians, 2011). Legal action is preferably the last resort as it tends to be expensive, time- and resource-consuming and can be divisive within and between communities (ibid). Ontario has already faced opposition from Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation (Ipperwash), Six Nations (Caledonia) and Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (Frontenac) (Wilkes, 2011).

The Big Trout Lake Experience

The Big Trout Lake ExperiencePlatinex Incorporated, a Toronto-based junior exploration company, acquired mineral claims within the traditional territory and unsettled land claim area of Big Trout Lake First Nation in 1999 (MiningWatch Canada, 2009). Big Trout is a fly-in community of around 900 people who live in the remote northwestern part of the province, some 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay (ibid). For a time Platinex was in discussion with the community about its plans, but the company proceeded with its activities before reaching an agreement (ibid). In 2001 Big Trout issued a moratorium on further activity until a satisfactory agreement was reached (ibid). In 2006 the conflict escalated, with members of the community actively protesting and blocking Platinex from their territory (ibid). More conflict and court proceedings ensued (ibid). In October 2007, frustrated by the costs and time being taken up in court, Big Trout withdrew its participation in legal proceedings, while the court issued an injunction prohibiting them from interfering in Platinex’s activities (ibid). Firm in their resolve, the community issued a statement saying that they would not allow Platinex back on their land and this led to contempt charges and eventual jail time for Chief Donny Morris and five councillors (ibid).

An appeal of the sentences in the Big Trout case was heard; all six of those in jail were released (MiningWatch Canada, 2009). The appeal decision cited problems with the Mining Act and the weak role of the province in structuring constructive consultation (ibid). The jailing of six First Nation leaders for peacefully asserting their constitutional rights to consultation and accommodation catapulted mining reform onto the front pages of newspapers and onto the priority list for the provincial government (ibid). High profile Canadians rallied and a thousand people convened on Queen’s Park to protest (Baggio, 2008). The province was then forced to lay out a framework for consultation on the Mining Act (ibid). In 2009, Platinex withdrew from Big Trout and received $5 million plus mediation for ceding their claim to the community (Ontario Nature, n.d.). In March 2012, the Government of Ontario withdrew 23,181 square kilometres from mineral exploration and development around this area (ibid).

So, while the passage of Bill 173 allowed Ontario to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to expressly recognize First Nation treaty rights in its mining legislation, there is nothing in the amended Act that actually requires consultations with First Nation communities prior to staking claims on treaty lands (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010; Union of Ontario Indians, 2011). Furthermore, Bill 173 does not require proponents to develop revenue sharing between mining companies and affected First Nation communities (ibid). And despite the provision requiring consistency with land use plans, the government may permit a new mine opening in the Far North if a project is in the social and economic interests of the province (ibid).

Environmental Impacts of Mines

The following inspirational video showcases, “Marilyn Baptiste, 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Canada” – A former chief of the Xeni Gwetin First Nation, Marilyn Baptiste led her community in defeating one of the largest proposed gold and copper mines in British Columbia that would have destroyed Fish Lake, a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwetin. She is the North America winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmental activists. For more information about Marilyn and how you can help, visit

A single mine is the centre of a web of development that includes the construction of roads, power-generating facilities and transmission lines, impoundment areas, and dams (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Mining can also permanently change the character of the landscape in a number of ways, from stripping and flooding productive lands, to limiting opportunities to pursue other land-based activities (ibid).

A. Water Consumption

Water is essential to many phases of the mining sequence (Ontario Nature, n.d.). The mineral sector is the fourth largest industrial water user in Canada, using about 1.7 billion cubic metres of fresh water per year (ibid). Of this, 78% is discharged directly into lakes and rivers without being treated (ibid). High pressure water is used to strip soil and vegetation, to keep dust down during construction, to separate ore during milling, and to flood tailings and waste rock areas (ibid). However, the activity that places the largest demand on freshwater supplies is the dewatering of mine pits and shafts (ibid). Dewatering is required to keep the mine dry in order to reach the ore in question (ibid).

Some of the processes for dewatering mines flood areas that naturally contain mercury and convert it to a highly toxic form called methylmercury (MiningWatch Canada, 2006b). Methylmercury, a neurotoxin, can cross the blood-brain and placental barriers, and allow it to react directly with brain and fetal cells (Environment Canada, 2013). Mercury contamination causes a wide range of symptons, in particular affecting the kidneys and neurological system (ibid). While low levels may not be directly lethal for individual organisms, toxicological effects like impaired reproduction, growth, neuro-development and learning ability, in addition to behavioral changes, can lead to increases in mortality and the risk of predation for some wildlife (ibid). The most important pathway for mercury bioaccumulation is through the food chain – as predators eat other organisms and absorb the contaminants that their food sources contained (ibid). Over time, an individual who consumes plants or prey contaminated with methylmercury will acquire levels greater than in either its habitat or in its food (ibid). As a result, top predators acquire greater body burdens of mercury than the food they consume (ibid).

(i) Water Quality

Some of the worst environmental offenders from the mining industry in Canada have left water bodies so polluted that they are unfit for human use and cannot sustain healthy ecosystems (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Downstream monitoring required by regulations shows that mines even those that are meeting water quality standards are still having impacts on aquatic ecosystems (ibid). Determining which chemicals in the mine effluent are the causes of the problem can be a real challenge (ibid). Ontario has established water quality standards enforced through the Ontario Water Resources Act, which are supposed to protect water resources from pollution levels above established thresholds (ibid). Unfortunately, the province has allowed the mining industry to continue its long-standing practice of dealing with waste by releasing effluent into otherwise healthy water bodies and relying on rivers and streams to dilute pollution levels (ibid). These areas where pollution levels are allowed to exceed provincial water quality standards are called mixing zones (ibid). Where they have not been approved, or discharge levels have been exceeded, charges can be laid, but this generally does not happen (ibid). In fact, there have been 50 breaches of established water pollution thresholds by the mineral sector in northern Ontario, but no convictions (ibid).

Most mining activities like soil stripping, trenching, road building, ore extraction and others, can lead to the release of soil and sediment into nearby streams and lakes (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Water quality and aquatic habitats can also be affected by increased amounts of sediment in the water column and settling on streambeds (ibid). When it is suspended in the water column, sediment can cause tissue rot or even directly kill fish (ibid). When it settles, it can smother fish eggs and aquatic plants, resulting in a decrease in both reproductive and survival rates for affected species (ibid). In addition, increased turbidity can decrease water temperatures and make it hard for fish to locate food (ibid).

B. Impact on Land

The actual footprint of many mine sites will continue to endure, even after reclamation efforts have been undertaken (Ontario Nature, n.d.). An open pit mine site may be as large as 5,000 hectares; however the actual footprint of a mine, including areas impacted by exploration and dewatering, can be as much as 300,000 hectares – equivalent to 600,000 soccer fields (ibid). Mining is one of the least efficient extractive industries in Canada (ibid). Of all of the material removed from the ground by a typical Canadian mine, only 2% of it can be converted into value (ibid). A mine may produce hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste, and much of what remains becomes hazardous in perpetuity, due to the risk of acid mine drainage and heavy metal pollution (ibid).

(i) Soil Contamination and Airborne Particle Pollution

The process of producing metal from its ore is called smelting (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Smelting represents another layer of potential environmental impacts associated with mine production (ibid). Smelters and blast furnaces continue to release airborne pollutants from smokestacks; mercury, lead, benzenes, arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, dioxins, furans and a number of other highly toxic compounds end up settling in plumes downwind of the release points, where they mix to become part of the rain, sleet, snow and fog released on local populations (Chivian & Bernstein, 2008). Once in the soil, some of these toxins are taken up by vegetation, and can then move through the food chain, becoming more concentrated through bioaccumulation (ibid).

Smelting has been linked with the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air, both leading causes of acid rain (Chivian & Bernstein, 2008). Coupled with the effects of climate change, both have been shown to work together to make water clearer and more easily penetrated by harmful ultraviolet radiation (ibid). Research from the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario suggests that some aquatic species, such as those who’s young develop in shallow waters, are put at risk from exposure to increased UV radiation which has also been shown to damage aquatic food webs, decrease photosynthesis and growth in some aquatic algae, and harm some aquatic invertebrates (Johansen, 2003).

Another concern is the impact of fuel spills at exploration sites (Ontario Nature, n.d.). It is unclear how often these occur, since they usually happen in remote areas that have little to no regulatory oversight (ibid). Although companies are required to document and clean up fuel spills, anecdotal accounts of fuel drums lost in bogs at an exploration site near McFauld’s Lake indicate that large spills may not always be properly reported (ibid; Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2010).

(ii) Landscape Fragmentation

.In Ontario’s boreal region, access roads and transmission lines that serve remote mines cut through the forest and interrupt the landscape (Ontario Nature, n.d.). Biologists call this landscape fragmentation because it divides the continuous forest into smaller pieces (ibid).

Fragmentation reduces the quality of forest habitat for wildlife and provides travel corridors for predators like wolves (Ontario Nature, n.d). This interferes with normal predator-prey relationships (ibid). It also increases access for human predators, which can lead to increases in hunting and fishing (ibid). Landscape fragmentation is the primary reason for the loss of Ontario’s woodland caribou populations, a species that tells us about the overall health of the boreal forest (ibid). There are also clear relationships between building accessible roads and the decline of other species, such as lake trout, as the level of fishing in a particular lake is directly linked to how accessible it is by road (ibid). Just a single road creates many new access points in the forest, which in turn attracts more use and further fragments an area (ibid). So, while a mine may be in production for only 15 years, the irreversible and long-term impacts of fragmenting land are rarely considered (ibid).

Health Impacts of Mining on First Nations Peoples in Ontario

This video, entitled “Neskantaga – We Love Our Land” shares the following story: “In the heart of the world’s largest intact boreal wetland, a tiny First Nation community is fighting to protect their lands, water and way of life. Governments are refusing to listen and a giant mining corporation is determined to mine the Ring of Fire on Neskantaga land. And at the heart of it all, the pure waters of the Attawapiskat River.”

Uranium Mining & the Serpent River Experience

Uranium Mining & the Serpent River Experience
Uranium Mining & the Serpent River Experience

Uranium Mining began in Elliot Lake in 1955, upstream from the Serpent River First Nation and it continued until the early 1990’s (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2011). Serpent River First Nation is a small community located on the North shore of Lake Huron (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a). Little thought was given to protecting the ecosystem or the downstream community (ibid).

Uranium is a heavy metal with the potential to cause a spectrum of adverse health effects ranging from renal failure and diminished bone growth to damage to the DNA (Canadian Family Physician, 2015). Increased glucose levels in the urine and high blood pressure have also been reported (ibid).
Because uranium possesses both chemical toxicity and radioactivity, assessing the relative contributions of each to its toxic profile is difficult (ibid). The effects of low-level radioactivity include cancer, shortening of life, and subtle changes in fertility or viability of offspring (ibid). These effects can be delayed for decades and are not detected in short-term toxicologic studies (ibid).

The people of Serpent River First Nation still experience severe environmental, health, social, cultural, and economic impacts from uranium mining, milling and tailing disposal (Union of Ontario Indians, 2011). Alkali and acid washes which isolate the uranium are highly toxic, as is the remaining 80% to 99% of the ore (ibid). This is stored in ponds or containment fields to prevent wind and water erosion; insufficient covering means that radioactive particles and radon can be swept many kilometres away from its housing (ibid). Besides the chemicals used in washes, toxic tailings contain sulfide ores, selenium, arsenic, and mercury, and approximately 85% of the radioactivity of the original ore (Ontario Nature, n.d.).

Contamination from uranium mining activity will persist for generations (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2011). The dust that blows away from the sites and the copious amounts of water used for dust control and uranium extraction all contain long-lived radioisotopes that are disseminated into the environment (ibid). In the tailings, thorium 230 decays to produce radon gas (ibid). With a half-life of 76 000 years, it will produce radon for millennia. In the atmosphere, radon decays into the radioactive solids polonium, bismuth, and lead, which then enter the water, crops, trees, soil, affecting both animals and humans (ibid). Radon exposure is linked to increases in lung cancer, small cell carcinoma, Aden carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma (Environmental Protection Agency, 2010).

It is no wonder, then that cancer and other disease rates have skyrocketed and taken a dreadful toll on the local population (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a). The Serpent River Watershed still holds 165 million tonnes of radioactive tailings left on the surface requiring monitoring, and treatment of the run-off, in perpetuity (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2011.). Yet neither the federal nor the provincial governments can confirm the locations and quantities of these uranium tailings (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a). This has raised enormous concerns within First Nations leadership because these radioactive tailings are still affecting the traditional livelihoods of the community members, and the ecosystems that rely on the waterways to survive (ibid). Not to mention the fact that the water and sediment of the Serpent River are still contaminated and the danger of a major spill is never too far away (ibid).

It should come as no surprise that other Canadian jurisdictions have applied restrictions, guidelines or a moratorium on uranium exploration. Several Ontario municipalities and organizations, such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Amnesty International, have requested that the Government of Ontario suspend uranium prospecting, exploration and mining until the associated health, environmental and economic issues are resolved (MiningWatch Canada, 2006b).

The Victor Diamond Mine and the Attawapiskat Experience

Victor Diamond Mine Attawapiskat, a remote Cree community of a little less than 2000 people on the coast of James Bay, is home to the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine (MiningWatch, 2006b). Victor is the first diamond mine for the province of Ontario and De Beers’ second Canadian mine (ibid). The open pit is 230 metres deep and up to 950 metres wide (ibid). The ecological footprint of the mine, however, is much larger (ibid). Up to 260,000 hectares – an area roughly four times the size of Toronto – is impacted (ibid). A new hydro corridor and access road from the coastal community of Attawapiskat to the mine site bisects intact wilderness (ibid). An existing winter road along the James Bay coast has been upgraded for heavy use by large haul trucks, further spreading the footprint of the mine (ibid). Yet the total life of the project is estimated at just 17 years (, 2013).

Environmental Impacts of the Victor Diamond Mine

Without question the mine is built in environmentally fragile ecosystems, has significant ecological footprints, and impacts upon the caribou, wolverine, bears, ptarmigan and fish which provide food for local First Nations communities (MiningWatch Canada, 2011). Its environmental impacts include:

Water Impacts

  • 100,000 m3 (cubic metres) of salty water being pumped out of the pit each day into the Attawapiskat River. This is equivalent to 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day (Sierra Legal, 2006);
  • The flow of the local river system has decreased by about 15%;
  • A 2.6 kilometre stretch of a creek was moved;
  • 1.2 million m3 of muskeg, trees and other plants were removed from the area;
  • Fish populations have been affected by the changes in water flow and water quality;
  • Methylmercury may be released by dewatering.

Land Impacts

  • 2.5 million tonnes of rock will be processed each year;
  • 28.7 million tonnes of rock will be dug from the ground and dumped in the surrounding area;
  • The waste rock will leach chemicals into the surrounding water.

Wildlife Impacts

  • The area of the mine and its associated infrastructure provides critical habitat for woodland caribou, a threatened species that are extremely sensitive to industrial activity;
  • The water table is affected for up to 260,000 hectares surrounding the mine. This dries out muskeg, changes the vegetation of the area and reduces the abundance of lichens, a key food for caribou;
  • The noise of the explosives used to construct the mine, combined with trucks bringing supplies and materials to and from the mine site, negatively impacts wildlife behaviour;
  • Easier motorized access in the region will increase hunting pressure on game species;
  • And the habitat for migratory birds will also be affected (MiningWatch Canada, 2011).

There have been a few protests and blockades by the community, such as in 2009 and 2013, preventing De Beers from continuing its mining operations (, 2013). The community felt that they were being treated unfairly, receiving inadequate compensation for use of its territory (ibid). Each time, the blockades came down after court injunctions (ibid). The last one issued in 2013 prevents any protests for 3 years, during which time anyone violating the restriction will be imprisoned (ibid). As of January 2015, De Beers has plans of expanding its Victor diamond mine (ibid).

Nonetheless, it is inspiring to see that First Nations communities across Canada are asserting their rights (Wilkes, 2011). They are increasingly demanding the right to say no, as stipulated in the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Wilkes, 2011). Nevertheless, a decolonized environmental decision making process is necessary to resolve longstanding conflicts with First Nations communities, while working to ensure their ecological, cultural and economic sovereignty in the future (Wilkes, 2011).

Occupational Health and Safety Issues

The immediate health hazards associated with mining include airborne pollutants and physical hazards (Public Health Ontario, 2015). The specific issues depend on the mine or quarry, its depth, the composition of the ore and rock, and the methods employed (ibid). Silica dust is a common contaminant that miners and quarry-workers encounter (ibid). Exposure can increase the risk of tuberculosis, lung cancer and various autoimmune diseases (ibid). Physical hazards include vibration, noise, ionizing radiation and heat (ibid). Mine fires and explosions are constant risks in the industry and require stringent preventive efforts (ibid). Health and safety concerns for workers in the smelting and refining industry include injuries, heat related illnesses, chemical and other physical hazards, such as electrocution (ibid).

The Government of Ontario in 2014 launched a comprehensive mining safety review to further improve the health and well-being of workers in the industry (Government of Ontario, 2015b). The province’s Chief Prevention Officer lead an advisory group of industry, labour, and health and safety representatives to begin a collaborative, evidence-based review on a wide range of areas (ibid). However, we have yet to see the final report. Still at issue are the health effects being felt by miners prior to any new legislation being implemented. Serpent River miners were never told about the potential of radioactive exposure and its health effects (MiningWatch Canada, 2006a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2011). Certainly, the issue of compensation will be a rather complicated one for those affected by mining activities in northwestern Ontario.

Citizen Advocacy and Coalition Building

Citizen Advocacy

One way for those concerned about mining and its effects to become informed is to access Environment Canada’s self-reporting inventory of pollutants released to the water, air and land from industries across the country (Environment Canada, 2014). The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) provides information on over 400 pollutant materials including potential health affects from exposure and the best available information on safe exposure thresholds (ibid). Data on the kind and amount of toxic substances released from smelters and ore-concentrating facilities can also be found in the NPRI (ibid). A recent legal challenge also forced the federal government to collect and report data on the toxic pollutants in waste rock and tailings areas (ibid):

To get involved – there are many avenues open to you. You can join existing letter writing campaigns or petitions. You can lend your voice to government consultations or reviews open for public input. You can get together with friends or colleagues to form your own group advocating for a particular cause. Create videos on Youtube to share your ideas. Twitter support. Seek to attend events that you care about: go to meetings, speak at hearings or attend rallies. Your participation is invaluable in shaping public discourse on environmental health issues. And of course, we welcome you in any of the activities that interest you as a member of CANE.

Coalition building

Contact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and ask him to ban the intrusive and unethical mining.

Here are a few groups who welcome those interested in collaborating on issues raised by the mining industry:

MiningWatch Canada is coalition of 18 environmental, social justice, First Nations and labour organizations. They work to support communities affected by mining, to do research about issues pertaining to mining, the environment and health, and to advocate for responsible mining practices in Canada and by Canadian mining companies operating internationally. Through advocacy and research, they aim to ensure mineral development practices are consistent with the goals of sustainable communities and ecological health:

Community Coalition against Mining Uranium is a grassroots organization. They support a moratorium on the exploration and mining of uranium. They have branches across southern Ontario:

The Council of Canadians is Canada’s leading social action organization, with 60 chapters across the country. Through their campaigns they advocate for clean water, fair trade, green energy and public health care. They work to educate and empower people to hold our governments and corporations accountable:

The Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment also has many opportunities to become involved in critical environmental health issues across the country. It is also a wonderful way to connect to other nurses who are just as passionate.

The federal government recently announced with its latest budget this week that it will spend $23 million over the next five years for chromite processing. With the impending federal election, we – as citizens, as nurses- have a valuable opportunity to have our voices and concerns heard. By doing so, we can work to prevent another Big Trout Lake or Serpent River from happening again



Ontario Provinical Government Directory

Writing Letters to Local and National Newspapers

Writing letters to newspapers is extremely helpful. Newspaper editors, like politicians, need to know what people are thinking about regarding the health issues of Mining. The editorial section is often the first page politicians turn to.

National Newspapers

Globe and Mail
National Post
Financial Post
Canadian Press
Also view the List of Newspaper in Canada

B.C. Newspapers

North Shore News
Prince George Citizen
Vancouver Sun
Vancouver Province
Victoria Times-Colonist

Ontario Newspapers

The Chronicle Journal
The Toronto Star
The Sault Star
The Ottawa Citizen

Expose written by Claudette Kelly, CNHE Member; Shelly Archibald, CNHE Communications, and June Kaminski, CNHE President, April 2015