Residents concerned about toxic air, soil
WINNIPEG — After years of holding their breath and staying indoors to avoid thick clouds of smelter smoke, Flin Flon residents want to know whether metal pollution is making them sick.
Flin Flon Mayor Tom Therien said residents of the small town located 750 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on the Saskatchewan border, have known for years that the community is contaminated with pollutants from the nearby mine and smelter — they just didn’t know how bad it was.
A new Manitoba Conservation study reveals the level of harmful metals found in some of Flin Flon’s soil exceeds the recommended guidelines for certain metals and could pose a risk to human health.
Of the 93 Flin Flon sites that were tested for arsenic, a known carcinogen, 58 soil samples exceeded levels deemed safe for public health — including samples from 16 playgrounds and one schoolyard.
The report said the pollutants are either known or suspected emissions from HudBay Minerals Inc. Many of the town’s 6,200 residents work for the mine and smelter or own small companies that depend on business from the mine.
Alan Hair, HudBay Minerals Inc. vice-president of metallurgy, safety and health, said the contami- nation is a result of long-standing “legacy” pollution — metals that have built up in the soil since the company started operations in the 1930s.
Therien said the soil report has prompted residents to form a 15-member community advisory committee that will help the province and HudBay Minerals look into the health effects of potential air, water and soil contamination from the smelter.
Studies have shown the health region which covers Flin Flon, The Pas and several First Nations has an incidence rate of certain cancers and chronic conditions like hypertension higher than the Manitoba average.
Hair said the smelter company is weighing how much it would cost to reduce pollution and how that compares to the $40 million of ore they plan to excavate in Flin Flon this year alone.
“You’ve got to look at what’s technologically possible and what’s economically possible,” Hair said. “It’s not a simple process.”
That has some residents worried that the benefit of cleaning up the town won’t outweigh the cost.
“Everybody in the community knows there’s something coming out of that stack,” said Deb Odegaard, head of Flin Flon’s environmental council.
“(But) if the company were to leave, we’d have very, very little, if anything, left here.”