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Canada The mining town where poisoned soil is 'a part of life'

This 1973 image shows Buchans, Nfld., the remote mining town that lies at the end of a 40-mile spur road and until the 1950s was accessible only by railway.

Lyndon Watkins/lyndon watkins The Globe and Mail

Tiny Buchans, Nfld., has always been a company town.

Transformed at the beginning of the last century from a slice of wilderness in the remote centre of the province to a self-sustaining hub by a U.S. mining giant, it was built for a single purpose: the mining of millions of tonnes of ore. For a long time, mining conglomerates owned the town, controlling who came in, where they lived and what they ate.

Although the ore ran out three decades ago and the mining companies mostly moved on, they retained a grip on the fate of Buchans: Residents learned this week the industry that created their town seems also to have poisoned it.

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Three provincial cabinet ministers called an emergency meeting at the town school on Tuesday night to deliver the news that recent soil tests uncovered high concentrations of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, uranium and copper, which "exceed human health guidelines." They directed all pregnant women and children under age 6 to undergo blood testing to determine what impact, if any, the soil contamination has had. Voluntary testing for adults and senior citizens will also be done.

"We can't conclusively say that this is a major concern at this point," Charlene Johnson, Newfoundland's Environment Minister, told residents. "There's no need for anybody to panic."



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As residents of the town 200 kilometres west of Gander continued to digest the news yesterday, there were no overt signs of alarm. Mayor Derm Corbett said there are only about a dozen young children in Buchans, and no pregnant women that he knows of. Still, he predicted a heightened "level of anxiety in the community" until testing is done and results are released.

Jeremy Chippett and his wife, Robyn, said they plan to have their daughter Kelli Lynn, 2, tested "for peace of mind."

"Ever since I've grown up we've always had these issues … it was just a part of life here," Mr. Chippett said. "It's no great surprise to me or anybody else in town."

Having played in the town's infamous Mucky Ditch, an area that was recently remediated but was known for years as a swamp loaded with contaminates from mining run-off, is a common experience among a certain generation.

For years, many have seen the yellow moon dust sprinkled throughout the town as little more than the residue of dimmed mining-industry fame. The town, which started out in the early 1900s, gained special status when the metallurgists' difficulties in treating lead and zinc concentrates from the ore became the basis for the development of a new "selective flotation" technique. It paved the way for industry advancement, but also drew international attention to the tiny town, giving the U.S. mining firm ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) ammunition in its negotiations with government to pursue development of a privately owned community to support the operation.

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With tough economic conditions in Newfoundland on its side, the company won. By 1928, it had constructed a mine and mill, bunkhouses and cottages for married workers, a mess hall, church, school, hospital and hydro-electric plant. The company controlled it all, including a ban on outside vendors and the use of a 37-kilometre railroad track to Millertown.

"You didn't get in unless you worked with the company; you didn't get out unless you had a company pass," said Mr. Corbett, the mayor. "This was a company town for a long, long time. For years, if a miner passed away, his family was given two weeks to vacate."

Over time, fierce labour strikes were staged over living and working conditions - extra blankets in the bunk house and raises measured by nickels and dimes - and restrictions loosened. Restaurants and other vendors moved into the town.

At its peak, the population was around 3,500. But by the mid-1970s, it became clear the ore had been depleted. The mine, owned in a joint-tenancy agreement between ASARCO and the pulp-and-paper giant AbitibiBowater, was scheduled to close in the early 1980s.

Talk turned to cleaning up areas where mining waste had been dumped, including what is known as the toxic tailings spill area, which residents estimate stretches six hectares.

"In the past, when environmental regulations were not as stringent as they are today, if there were problems at the mill when the ore was being processed, they just opened a valve and allowed the material to fill out into this marshy, boggy area," Mr. Corbett said.

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Ivan Hodder, 76, began at Buchans as a millwright in 1952, when he was 18. He can remember when the tailings "ran right through the centre of town in an open ditch."

"All these tailings were pumped in different places and the ground became polluted," he said. "It's still in the ground."

Cleanup has been stalled by a complicated series of insolvency-related issues with both companies overseeing the mine. AbitibiBowater has responsibility for the site but is embroiled in a battle over its assets with the province.

Meanwhile, the province has pledged to take charge of cleaning up the remaining sites in Buchans. That was welcome news to all of its 750 remaining residents, nearly half of whom are retirees, while most others work in the service industry or mining-related jobs nearby.

"It's time somebody got off their ass and started cleaning this place up," Mr. Hodder said.

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