Scientist David Pearson still has a vivid memory of a “bad air day” when he was getting out of his car at Laurentian University in the early 1970s, prior to the Inco Superstack being built.
“I ran from my car to get in the building,” he recalled, during a press conference Friday at the Vale Copper Cliff Smelting Complex. “It was not a pleasant experience.”
Friday’s event marked the end of the mining company’s six-year, $1-billion Clean Atmospheric Emissions Reduction project.
It involved the construction of two new converters, which have special hoods to capture sulphur-dioxide gas, and a new wet-gas cleaning plant that captures 85 per cent of the sulphur-dioxide emissions previously emitted by the Superstack.
As well, Clean AER introduced a baghouse/fan building that acts like a giant vacuum cleaner, reducing metals particulate emissions by 40 per cent, and a pair of new 450-foot stacks that will be more efficient to operate than the Superstack.
Vale expects natural gas consumption to drop by nearly half once the Superstack is taken out of service.
Pearson, who was on hand for the launch of the Clean AER project back in 2012, said the addition of the Superstack in 1972 was an important first step in improving the environment locally, directing sulphur-dioxide emissions away from the Sudbury area.
More work to reduce emissions followed in the next few decades, said the former Science North director, resulting in fish returning to all of the area’s 300 lakes. The final lake that had remained barren finally saw fish taking hold again last year, he added.
The Clean AER changes, said Pearson, will mark yet another major improvement for the environment.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, the emissions from three days are what the emissions will be in one year with this program,” he pointed out. “I think it would take over 100 years of (Clean AER) emissions to meet the emissions of the late 1960s. It is extraordinary.”
Dave Stefanuto, vice-president of projects for Vale’s North Atlantic Operations, said about 80 per cent of the smelter complex has been overhauled.
“Today is clearly a great day,” he said. “We have reduced emissions to one per cent of what we emitted when we created the Superstack in 1972.”
Ricus Grimbeek, chief operating officer for Vale’s North Atlantic Operations and Asian Refineries, said it was a big challenge to complete the Clean AER project while the smelter complex was in operation.
“It’s a lot like doing open heart surgery while running a marathon,” he said.
Grimbeek said that when he first saw photos of the Sudbury area from the 1970s, “it looked like the moon.”
When the Superstack was introduced in 1972, the structure became a landmark that could be seen as far away as the Sudbury Airport.
The latest initiative with sulphur-dioxide reduction, said Grimbeek, “does show what industry can do and how technology evolves,” the result being the Superstack is being replaced by two smaller stacks.
Sudbury Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre, who was recently appointed parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources, said that 40 years ago “we had to create a big smokestack to get the pollution away from us.”
Four decades later, emissions from the smelter have been reduced to a trickle of what they once were.
“Because of these efforts, Sudbury has gone from pollution capital to one of the most innovative centres in the world and it’s an amazing story,” he said. “The times have changed. Technology has changed. Vale is leading the way.”
Construction of the two new stacks is well underway and steel liners will be installed next year.
In 2020, the Superstack’s steel liner will be removed and the structure will be taken out of service and placed in care and maintenance. The removal of the Superstack’s concrete shell will then begin and continue over several years.
Back in 1970, the smelter produced sulphur-dioxide emissions of about 2,500 kilotonnes/year. By 1990, emissions were down to 617 kt/year. As of 2,000, the figure had fallen to 223 kt/year. As a result of the Clean AER project, emissions will be reduced to just 25 kt/year.
When the Clean AER project was launched back in June of 2012, it was to be a $2-billion endeavour. But as work on the began, Vale decided to cut it the project in half to $1 billion in changes. The company cited volatile market conditions, operating cost challenges, and the commissioning of the Long Harbour project in Newfoundland, which would handle ore mined at the company’s Voisey’s Bay operations that had been processed at the Copper Cliff Smelting Complex.
The smelter, meanwhile, was going down to one furnace from two.
Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger said the Clean AER project has a global significance.
“It demonstrates such a strong commitment to our community, a strong belief in the future of the Sudbury Basin,” he said.
The press conference ended with a live butterfly release on the smelter complex grounds.