The Arrogance of Inco

The Arrogance of Inco – by Val Ross (Originally Published in May 1979 – Part 4 of 4)
June 30, 2010 in Canadian/International Media Resource Articles, Inco History, Vale
“The Arrogance of Inco” was originally published as the cover story in the May, 1979 issue of Canadian Business. Reporter Val Ross, who died in 2008, spent two and a half months researching and writing this lengthy expose of the then Inco Limited. It has become a “classic must read” for anyone wishing to understand the often bitter history between Sudbury and the company that defined the Canadian mining industry.

4-Troubles in the Province of Ontario

Nineteen hundred and fifteen was a rather wet year in the Sudbury district. The sulphur dioxide fumes from the open-air roasting heaps hung in sickening mists and low clouds over the region. In increasing numbers the local farmers brought damage suits against the nickel producers, Mond and International Nickel. In desperation the nickel companies turned to the Ontario Ministry of Lands, Forests and Mines for protection. They begged the government to remember nickel’s contribution to the defence of the Empire (this was the year before the Deutschland’s two trips to pick up nickel supplies for Germany).

Charging opportunism, they protested, “Lands are being taken up and a pretence of farming made…in the hope and the expectation that the same may be damaged or appear to be damaged so that a claim against the company may be made.”

The Ontario government agreed with the nickel men’s interpretation of events and dealt with the “smoke farmers,” as Inco dubbed the victims, accordingly. Whole townships near Copper Cliff and Sudbury were withdrawn from sale to settlers. When the remaining lots changed hands, “smoke easement clauses” were written in which denied the buyers the right to sue mining companies. These clauses, reviewed in 1942 during another spate of farmers’ and residents’ complaints, have been retained. To this day, no owner of Sudbury real estate has the right to sue mining companies for property damage.

There were, and remain, variants on the sulphur dioxide pollution problems in the Sudbury area.When the sulphur dioxide from the smelters’ smokestacks mixes with moisture in the air, it rains sulphuric acid. Before the coming of Superstack, the 1,250-foot monster that disperses the smoke over a wider area and therefore in lower concentrations, cars used to rust quickly in Sudbury; barbed wire fences had a life expectancy of about a year and a half. The life expectancy of local lakes looked bad too. In 1972 the Science Council of Canada reported, “Severe tree damage has been detected up to 30 miles from the emission sources; vegetation has been stunted within a 720-square mile area…there are now no fish of any kind in at least 32 lakes and soon they will be gone from at least 38 more.”

You couldn’t win if you lived in the Sudbury district. If there was no rain, if it was dry and the wind blew the noxious smoke away, the wind also carried a fine grit, or tailings dust, into your house, your food, your eyes and nose. The sun was sometimes obscured in a brown sky; people in Copper Cliff kept their storm windows on all year. In 1958 the company’s agricultural department developed a multimillion-dollar solution to the problem of grit – strains of grasses that would take root on the tailings haps and hold the dust in place. The company calls it “rye on the rocks.”

Control of tailings dust is a victory in the company’s battle to control pollution. But it is a solitary victory, and the company has been riding on it for the past 20 years. Sulphur dioxide, in all its forms and places of manifestation, remains a acid ulcer in the corporate body.

The problem will get bigger if a Sudbury man name John Gagnon succeeds in his appeals to the Workman’s Compensation Board. They call Gagnon the “two-and-a-half-million-dollar man.” That is the estimated cost of WCB payments to the widows and orphans of cancer victims among Inco’s sintering plan employees. Gagnon believes that there are about 200 lung and sinus cancer deaths for which compensation claims can be made. Workers in the old Inco sintering plant were exposed to sulphur dioxide, burned off the ore at temperatures approaching 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The air at the plant was also full of nickel dust, arsenic and other toxic substances. The company closed the plant in 1963. It’s taken the Ontario Workmen’s Compensation Board15 years longer to deal with Gagnon’s cases.

Government’s impotence with respect to Sudbury’s safety and pollution problems has always been puzzling. One reason, suggested provincial NDP House Leader Elie Martel (Sudbury East), is that “many of the staff of Ontario’s Department of Mines were ex-Inco men.” Another problem was the persistent discrepancy of the evidence. Whenever the union complained about high carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide reading in the plants, the Department of Mines reported that its readings showed much lower concentrations of the gases. The union retorted that men were being carried out of the smelting and sintering plants unconscious; the government said its inspectors were satisfied by the safety and atmospheric conditions in the plants.

In February, 1968, Elie Martel, just elected for the first time, asked Allan Lawrence, Minister of Mines, about the results of the government’s investigation of an explosion in Inco’s Copper Cliff coal plant. Lawrence told Martel he’d get back to him. A week later Lawrence reported that a government inspection on December 18, 1967, had given the plant a clean safety report.

Suddenly Martel was on his feet and brandishing before the House a telegram from the United Steelworkers Local 6500. The telegram was dated December 17, and it reported that the men were working overtime to clean the plant. They surmised that they must be about to have an inspection.

The mystery of the discrepancy between government inspectors’ reports and union complaints was laid bare: the government had been in the practice of notifying Inco whenever a safety and pollution inspection was imminent.

Inco’s safety statistics and records were also puzzling people. For much of Inco’s history, company police – or local police who also moonlighted as guards for the company – investigated accidents. One might suspect a bias in what they reported. From time to time there were even allegations that the company’s investigators were altering the sites of fatalities. But the government cited figures from its Department of Mines inspection branch which showed that Inco, although the province’s largest employer in the mining industry, had a lower-than-average fatalities rate and a minuscule record of man-hours lost to accidents.

Martel and the NDP charges that Inco’s safety record was distorted. Martel told the House that injured workers were being cabbed into work, broken legs, ankles and all, to keep the company’s lost-hours rates low. He produced affidavits from miners and workers who, although injured, had recuperated not at home but on Inco property, occasionally doing paperwork, more often just reading comic books, in a special room reserved for them which the workers dubbed “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

In 1974 the long-complacent Ontario government finally established a Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines. Dr. James Ham (now president of the University of Toronto), who headed the study, found that of the big metals producers- Algoma Steel Corp. Ltd., Noranda Mines Ltd., Texasgulf Canada Ltd., Falconbridge Nickel Mines Ltd., Rio Algom Mines Ltd., and Dome Mines Ltd. – Inco in fact, led the pact with a rate of 85.3 nonfatal accidents per million man-hours.

One university study showed that Sudbury’s death rates for men over 55 were 50% higher than the national average, but whether conditions in the Copper Cliff sintering plants, iron recovery plants and smelters were partly responsible continued to be a matter of dispute. In spite of Elie Martels’ proof that the government had been notifying the company of imminent inspections, the Ontario government insisted that the company was maintaining a safe five parts per million sulphur dioxide level in the air at its plants.

The Toronto Star decided to find out what was going on. (The Sudbury Star, not noted for crusading journalism, was scarcely inclined to do the job; locals call it “The Inco Star.”) In 1968 a McGill University student, Mark Starowicz, was hired by the Toronto paper to go into the company’s Copper Cliff operations and investigate. But after he’d written his story, the Star sat on it until a desk man leaked a carbon copy to the NDP and it was read aloud in the legislature by MPP Morton Shulman.

“The plant is heavily guarded by security men,” Starowicz reported. “ For two days I asked various workers to sketch for me sections of the plant they knew and to draw me every walkway, passage and entrance…. Wednesday night, dressed in clothes given me by the workers, and equipped with the required safety goggles and gas mask, I began to cross the slag heap… Guards intermittently played powerful lights onto the slag range and that made my progress slow.”

After an hour Starowicz, with his camera and Draeger meter (which takes readings of atmospheric conditions) was inside the plant. “The heat grew in intensity…. Trying to walk toward these stoves of hell was like walking against some big soft hand that was pushing you back…. At the east side of the M floor, a 20-foot walkway around the to9p of the furnaces, the air was immersed in as shiny blue pall.”

As Starowicz moved closer to the furnaces, the heat (at time 150 degrees Fahrenheit) and the air got to him. An acrid smell permeated his gas mask. Eyes stinging, tearing, gasping and retching, he collapsed in a 45-second dizzy spell. Workers dragged him to clearer air. Before Starowicz left the plant he took a reading. The air must have contained more than 200 parts per million of sulphur dioxide; the readings were off the Draeger meter’s scale.

The next day Mark Starowicz, Toronto Star reporter, was given an official tour of the same plant. The air was clean enough to be inhaled without a gas mask. His guide told Starowicz reassuringly, “We take tourists through here every day.” After the official tour, Starowicz dropped by the union office. “There’s a warrant out for you,” he was told. “The company found out what you did.” Starowicz left on the next plane with his story.

Starowicz’ story is interesting not only because it reveals conditions in the plant, but also because it demonstrates the reality behind company’s benign denial of its problems, and the media’s reluctance to take Inco to task.

Ten years have passed since Starowicz’ misadventures in the Inco smelter complex. Keith Rothney, chairman of the union’s safety, health and environment committee, has told Canadian Business that before the strike last September, the smelter complex still had sulphur dioxide readings of 30 parts per million – six times the provincial government’s safe limit.

The union has reported 86 deaths at Inco in the past decade, eight in the past year, and about 7,000 accidents annually. Some of these casualties are no doubt caused by inattention, a few by drunkenness on the job. And, of course, it’s in the union’s interest to go into bargaining sessions armed with puffed-up grievance and accident statistics. That’s how company, government and even some non-union Sudbury people explain Inco’s rather high casualty figures. But the figures won’t go away. They’re like Superstack in the respect. Or rather, they’re a problem much like the sulphur dioxide problem that Superstack has failed to solve.

Superstack was one way the company saw to get around its sulphur dioxide problem. “Yes, I was highly suspicious of the thing,” said Mines Minister Allan Lawrence back in 1969, when the 1,250-foot stack which would diffuse those troublesome emissions was already under construction. “It seemed idiotic to me. But I have since been convinced this is a temporary measure…” Ten years have passed since Lawrence’s reassurances, and Superstack is still the only measure the company has taken to cut down on sulphur dioxide damage to the Sudbury area. It hasn’t been for want of trying; Inco has spent between $30 million and $40 million on pollution research in the past decade in its attempt to meet the Ontario government’s order to cut back sulphur dioxide emissions from 6,000 to 750 tons a day. But the company’s handling of the problem has been a PR debacle. Inco privately informed the provincial government several years ago that the lower emission standard probably wouldn’t be met, but has continued to refer to Superstack in public and in the press as an “interim measure.”

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