Why we should copy Sudbury: Letter to the Editor

Algonquin Tannery
Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, circa 1908. "Algonquin Tannery." - Source: Shorpy.com

As our city awaits the arrival of the Noront Resources ferrochrome production facility slated to be located just west of the steel plant we should be aware that our sister city Soo Michigan has been and still is dealing with toxic waste containing chromium 6 (which is the unavoidable byproduct of ferrochrome production).

In the case of Soo Michigan the source of chromium 6 was a leather tannery that processed animal hides, that operated from the 1800’s until 1958. Ironically this site 1.5 miles west of the city’s business centre is almost directly across the St Mary’s River from the proposed ferrochrome site. Interesting also is the fact that the property in Soo Michigan was owned by a subsidiary of Algoma Steel.

The site was assessed by the EPA (the Environmental  Protection Agency) and deemed in 1988 to be a toxic waste site that was hazardous enough to qualify for the Superfund (which is a US government program to fund the cleanup  of the most toxic waste sites in the country).

Since the 19th century the Northwestern Leather Company processed leather at this site which consists of 75 acres on the south bank of the St Mary’s River. The tannery dumped its waste material (which is high in chromium 6) in a 5 acre area that was in the flood plain of the St Mary’s River. The waste reached a depth of 6 to 8 feet and was left uncovered.

The 75-acre Cannelton Industries, Inc. site is located in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. A portion of the site is located within the 100-year floodplain of the St. Mary’s River. The Northwestern Leather Company operated a tannery and processed animal hides at the site from 1900 to 1958. Waste disposal operations contaminated soils, sediments and surface water in the St. Mary’s River with heavy metals, including chromium, lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In 1954, Fibron Limestone Co. (a subsidiary of Algoma Steel Corp., Ltd., of Canada) purchased the 75 acres. Subsequently, the property was transferred to Cannelton Industries, Inc., another Algoma subsidiary. The property was intended for construction of a manufacturing plant that was never built. Algoma dismantled various structures that were considered hazardous.  The site is no longer in use.

On-site soil and adjacent river sediments contained extremely high levels of CHROMIUM, LEAD, COPPER, CYANIDE, and MERCURY, according to tests conducted by Lake Superior State University and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. CHROMIUM, LEAD, MANGANESE, ARSENIC, and IRON well in excess of drinking water standards were also found in the ground water.  An estimated 1,200 people obtain drinking water from private wells within 3 miles of the site, the nearest about 1 mile from the site.

In 1986, Algoma Steel agreed informally with the state of Michigan to construct (1) a wall along the shore of the St. Mary’s River to prevent wave and ice action from removing solid material from the site and (2) an impermeable clay cap to prevent erosion and prohibit rainwater from infiltrating the site. In the spring of 1989, under an order from the EPA, Algoma Steel completed a wall to control erosion along the shoreline of the barren zone.  The clay cap never materialized.

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Chromium-6 testing of drinking water from 2013-2015. Source: Environmental Working Group

Chromium 6 still persists in the soil and the drinking water. The tap water in Soo Michigan tests for levels of chromium 6 that are over 10 times the California public health goal set after the “Erin Brockovich” affair. This is according to an interactive map of chromium 6 “hotspots” across the US.

Noront Resources has repeatedly said that the proposed ferrochrome plant here will be modelled after the Outukumpu plant outside of Tornio, Finland. The Tornio plant is on a peninsula surrounded by sea (the Gulf of Bothnia). The plant draws 24 million cubic meters of water per year from nearby rivers as a once-through cooling medium and then dumps it into the sea. A quarter tonne of effluent from the furnaces and which contains chromium 6 is washed away annually to dissipate in the sea. What will the Noront ferrochrome plant mean for the St Mary’s River ?

The plant will produce 20,000 tonnes of contaminated waste each year. This will most likely end up in tailings ponds which predictably will leak. Almost inevitably chromium 6 will end up in the ground water and drinking water.

The Outukumpu plant is outside of Tornio (population 22,000), miles from the residential heart of the city. The proposed Noront site is adjacent to the steel plant. Despite the most modern containment measures, chromium 6 is still emitted into the air in Tornio, detectable in the soil and plant life. In the Soo the bulk of our population would be directly downwind to the airborne emissions. In a statement full of civic concern, a Noront spokesperson estimates that the location of the ferrochrome plant inside the city would decrease operating costs by up to 1/3.

Noront Resources is planning for a high-ranking executive to host a presentation on the ferrochrome plant at which time there will be a question period. The city is so desperate for job creation and city hall is so invested in this ferrochrome proposal, that it is unlikely that any of our civic leaders will press Noront with the critical questions about the future environmental effects to our air, soil and water. To Noront this presentation will be just another PR infomercial.

50 years ago Sudbury wasn’t much bigger than the Soo. We laughed because its barren industry-scarred landscape resembled the lunar landscape so much that NASA send astronauts to train there. Since then Sudbury has consistently made smarter decisions than the Soo. Its economy diversified from just mining and smelting. Its population has grown to almost 3 times ours. It has a Costco, not just Dollar stores. The moonscape is even green again.

When Sudbury was picked as one of the final 4 candidates for the proposed ferrochrome plant last year, Sudbury sent a delegation, including the mayor to investigate the Tornio plant in Finland. Although the mayor still supported the project afterwards, the city of Sudbury ended up saying no to ferrochrome because of the environmental concerns.  Sudbury consistently makes the right decisions looking beyond the short-term. We should learn.

Peter Chow


  1. Chromium-6 Testing



    Average: ppb

    California Public Health Goal: 0.02 ppb

    See all testing data
    Chippewa County, Michigan
    (see systems)
    Chromium-6 Testing

    All 2 water systems tested positive for chromium-6. 20 out of 22 samples tested positive for chromium-6.

    County-wide Statistics

    Average: 0.256 ppb

    Range: ND – 0.604 ppb

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