History of the Sudbury community began in 1883 during development of the trans-national railway, and was planned as a temporary work camp and station on the CPR line. The name Sudbury came from James Worthington, a CPR superintendent, in recognition of his wife's birthplace in England.
The first industry to establish was the lumber trade. The railway required large amounts of timber to build its westward line and the area, dominated by mature forests of red and white pine, could readily provide that raw material. The terrain featured the rocky outcrops, lakes, and wetlands unique to the Canadian Shield, and in November 1884, one of these outcrops was to lead to the discovery of a rich vein of nickel copper ore. That find was to be the impetus for the building of a more permanent community, and the work camp quickly grew into a small town as prospectors and companies rushed in to claim the rich minerals of the Sudbury Basin.
Area a Global Source of Mineral Wealth
Today, Sudbury's mineral wealth is shared by Inco Limited (founded 1902), and Falconbridge Limited (begun in 1928), and some of the original mines, such as Creighton Mine, are still producing to this day. Both companies built massive infrastructures to treat their ore, and for many years there were three smelter sites operating in the area - Inco Limited processed ore in Copper Cliff (still in operation), and Coniston, while Falconbridge Limited continues to treat its ores in the town of Falconbridge.
Sudbury's nickel and copper are found in a sulphide ore, and the companies have to remove the sulphur with heat as part of the smelting process. Many years ago, when people weren't aware of environmental issues, the resulting sulphur dioxide gas was released to the atmosphere and resulted in significant damage to the surrounding vegetation. Gas emissions led to a buildup of sulphur in the soil and this increased acidity to the point that vegetation was severely restricted in certain areas, particularly near the smelters. Without trees and grass to hold the soil it fell victim to the erosive effects of wind and rain. What was left behind was the bare rock and gravel that led to the 'moonscape' image many people still associate with Sudbury.
New Technology Substantially Reduces Emissions
However, for several decades now, both companies have been applying technologies such as scrubbers, precipitators and sulphur capture equipment to modify their smokestack emissions and considerably reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide that is released. In fact, a large amount of the sulphur is collected to produce other products, such as sulphuric acid, that are used by industry.
Sulphur dioxide gas was not the only material that was released from the area's smokestacks. We now know that very minute particles of nickel, copper, cobalt, and arsenic and other metals also escaped over the years, although the quantities have been cut substantially by recent advances in technology.
Subject Metals Occur Naturally in Soils
Nickel, copper, cobalt, and arsenic and other metals are always found as naturally-occurring elements in soil, but several studies have reported elevated levels in some parts of the Sudbury Basin, especially in the top five centimetres of soil (the surface soil) and particularly in areas close to the historic smelting sites. The consensus is that over the years, smelting and refining activities have gradually built up these metal levels.
Earlier studies focused on the potential for plant damage. That is why in 2001, the Ministry of the Environment recommended the Sudbury Soils Study, so that extensive soil data would be obtained and comprehensive risk assessments could be carried out for human and ecological health. At this point both the ministry and the local Medical Officer of Health have stated that, based on previous studies of a similar nature in other Ontario communities, there is "no expected immediate risk to human health."
Perhaps the best indication of our community's efforts to change its image and mend its landscape is the successful regeneration of trees and plant life in the area. This is due to a concentrated effort at land reclamation that began in the late seventies and which has earned the community worldwide recognition for its environmental efforts.
Simple Process Creates Dramatic Results
More than three decades ago, local scientists developed simple and effective ways of rehabilitating the local landscape. Tests had shown that the application of lime and fertilizer would kick-start new plant growth in Sudbury's barren areas. The lime would neutralize the acidity that had built up over decades, as well as limit the availability of metals to plants, while the fertilizer would feed the plants and allow them to establish. Soon, grasses began to flourish among the rocks, building a base for future plant growth.
Before long, experiments began with planting trees, and the young seedlings also flourished. As the trees grew they created micro-environments that attracted birds, animals, and fostered other growth. Areas that had recently been barren sandy plains and rocky hillsides began to come alive with young forests. If you were to visit some of those sites today you would never guess how dramatic the transition has been.
Re-Greening Project Continues
Millions of trees have been planted since the program began - native species like red pine, white pine, and other varieties - and the City has a master plan that will see millions more enter the ground before it is complete. To maximize the visual impact of re-greening, the initial focus was on planting trees near roadways or in other highly-visible areas.
As the years have passed, teams of people have ventured deeper into distressed areas to amend the soil and start the cycle of new plant life. Traditionally, spring and early summer is the time when lime and fertilizer are spread over the soil to decrease acidity and provide nutrients. Late summer and fall is when the seedlings are planted so that they receive the benefit of the autumn rains and snow cover.