A Toxic Legacy: The Past, Present, and Future of Industrial Pollution in Sault Ste. Marie
Part 1: Introduction
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sault Ste. Marie is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Nestled in the middle of one of the largest stores of freshwater in the world – the Great Lakes – it boasts some of the most picturesque and diverse landscapes one could imagine.
Although just one small piece of the vast expanse we call Canada, it’s also reflective of all of the highs and lows of nation building here: a rich history of Indigenous culture and heritage, the lure of prosperity and waves of settlement, nascent industry and commerce, a multicultural social fabric, the violence of colonialism, and the promise of reconciliation.
The envy of people who visit from around the world, local residents seamlessly blend immersion in natural beauty and all of the conveniences of city life.
Sadly, in stark contrast to this extraordinary natural endowment, Sault Ste. Marie is also the site of a toxic hotspot – more euphemistically known as an ‘area of concern’ – largely a result of decades of industrial pollution and untreated municipal wastewater.
One might say that with great beauty comes great responsibility.
Last spring, people throughout the Algoma region experienced a dramatic example of this stark contrast, when officials warned locals not to consume smelts due to fear of poisoning from accumulated waterborne contaminants. Many were shocked to learn that one of the most popular pastimes of the area was now laden with risk due to the cumulative effects of pollution.
It was jarring precisely because the scientific evidence of fish contamination is so at odds with the myths that we have constructed about our allegedly pristine waterways.
Although there was modest coverage of the issue in local media, there was scarcely any effort to investigate why and how pollution in our waterways could become so acute. Our consciousness of the environment and technology have both seen incredible progress over the past half-century, but it is undeniable that a significant gap exists between the scope of environmental protections we think we have and what actually happens on the ground, in the air, or in the water.
But one thing, better than anything else, illustrates the tension between our alleged commitment to local stewardship and what we actually allow to happen: Algoma Steel.
There’s no other way to put it: we are a steel town.
In fact, it’s impossible to understand Sault Ste. Marie without understanding how industrial production has intimately shaped its history. Established at the turn of the 20th century, Algoma Steel has been a fixture of Sault Ste. Marie’s economic vitality ever since. Paradoxically, though, the greatest economic boon for Sault Ste. Marie comes at a great cost: a legacy of industrial pollution that jeopardizes both human health and the environment.
For locals concerned about these issues, recent news brought a great sigh of relief along with some cautious optimism.
As a part of the federal Liberal Party’s pre-election campaigning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to Sault Ste. Marie last July to announce up to $420 million in public funding. The funding will allow Algoma Steel to significantly transform its production process by introducing electric arc furnaces (to replace basic oxygen steelmaking that requires coal). The full project will reportedly cost approximately $700 million.
Not to be outdone by the federal government, four Ontario cabinet ministers, including local MPP Ross Romano, showed up (mostly virtually) a bit later for the good news, too. Since then, some of the details of the new furnace infrastructure investment and public funding have been formalized. If fully realized, the new infrastructure will drastically reduce (but not eliminate) some of the worst carbon emissions and pollution in Ontario. What happens between now and then isn’t self-evident, including how aging infrastructure will meet provincial pollution limits.
In a world that simply can’t wait to address climate change and an industry beset by perpetual boom and bust cycles, Algoma Steel appears to have made a fateful decision when faced with two stark options: become an unsustainable relic of the past or adapt and be part of the future.
In 2018, the City of Sault Ste. Marie also made a fateful decision.
When a relatively unknown mining company (NorOnt Resources Ltd.) with ambitions to develop recently discovered mineral deposits in an area of the James Bay (dubbed the ‘Ring of Fire’) went looking for a potential site to process (i.e. smelt) ferrochrome, Sault Ste. Marie went into overdrive.
City Council unanimously passed a motion to attract NorOnt’s attention as a potential smelter site. A charm offensive was swiftly commenced, involving an impressive array of the major power brokers. In the months and years that followed, it was often hard to tell the difference between the City and NorOnt. Both were engaged in an overlapping public relations campaign to recruit local cheerleaders and assuage any naysayers.
Of course, it’s easy to appreciate the eagerness.
Sault Ste. Marie seems to be emulating trends occurring in countless other cities on the periphery of Canada.
Established industries are waning and economic diversification is a perpetual challenge. Youth are inevitably lured by opportunities elsewhere. Skilled workers from outside the city are difficult to attract. Social problems like addictions, mental health crises, and poverty are becoming both more apparent and more difficult to address. Approximately a half-decade ago, the fate of Algoma Steel (then owned by Essar) seemed uncertain, too, so the desire to create any good paying jobs was imperative.
Nonetheless, eagerness often comes at the cost of full consideration.
The City’s submission to NorOnt – outlining favourable local conditions for the proposed smelter – was delivered in style. A delegation of Sault Ste. Marie’s most important representatives spirited to Toronto and Mayor Christian Provenzano hand delivered the submission with pride.
In the minds of those in that delegation, their delivery was probably a public relations coup. But for a not insignificant number of local residents, including a raft of our most respected health professionals, it was the first step to potentially rendering Sault Ste. Marie uninhabitable (for those who understood the potential environmental and health risks).
Nobody can say whether or not the Ring of Fire will eventually be developed, or if the proposal for a ferrochrome smelter will come to fruition in Sault Ste. Marie.
The broader point, however, is that the City’s submission was symbolic.
It reflected the incredible deference paid to industry due to economic desperation, a misplaced confidence in environmental regulations and enforcement, and most importantly, a seeming disregard for the health and safety of our community and the environment.
In the words of those who most ardently support the project, including local policymakers, Ontario has robust environmental regulations that are keeping the environment (and us) safe.
But even a cursory look at how industrial polluters are held accountable – including Algoma Steel – reveals that the regulatory regime is deeply flawed.
To be blunt, we bear the negative consequences of industrial pollution every single day, blissfully (but ignorantly) thinking that someone else is keeping a watchful eye.
That said, demanding accountability is not one bit about diminishing the local importance of Algoma Steel.
It’s probably the case that every single person in the city is somehow connected to Algoma Steel. Some of my forefathers, like many Italian immigrants to Sault Ste. Marie, worked there for their entire lives. Lured by the prospect of stability and prosperity, they were willing to toil in oppressive working conditions without much complaint. Their efforts, in part, helped birth a subsequent generation that could afford the privilege of actually choosing one’s own career path, including many being the first in their family to attend a post-secondary institution.
The rest is history, so to speak. My generation is, therefore, the product of the positive economic impacts that Algoma Steel has had on our community for over a century, something for which I’m eternally grateful.
Nonetheless, I think that it’s fair to say that we’ve never really had an honest conversation about industrial pollution as a community, aside from the occasional headline or protest.
Although everyone, without exception, recognizes and appreciates the positive economic benefits of Algoma Steel, there’s a significant proportion of our community that is absolutely petrified of publicly discussing any of Algoma Steel’s negative effects.
Without an open and honest conversation informed by data and analysis, we simply cannot make good decisions as a community. Instead, we’re simply left with a status quo that’s too big to fail, but not one that we consciously arrived at with all the facts.
One of the main reasons that it’s so easy to be complacent about industrial pollution is that the issue is too often framed in zero-sum terms: we can either have robust environmental regulations and enforcement or we can have economic prosperity.
Based on the wide ranging data collection and analysis that informs this investigative series, we simply do not need to choose between the long-term economic viability of our city and human health and the environment.
Some of the problems that the city faces are structural and systemic, to be sure, but there are concrete actions that could take place tomorrow to better balance gainful local employment, our health, and the environment.
In response to this challenge, the following series will be an attempt to start a new conversation.
Over the next few months, Breaking the Taboo will investigate the legacy of industrial pollution in Sault Ste. Marie in six separate installments. Each installment focuses on one particular element of a broader story to give readers a panoramic view of the major issues at play while connecting with important voices along the way.
You’ll hear from a local whistleblower that has good reason to suspect that our environmental regulations aren’t keeping the environment (or us) safe.
You’ll hear from local residents who struggle with the effects of poor air quality on a daily basis.
You’ll hear from local stakeholders and policymakers, including officials from the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks, Algoma Public Health, Algoma Steel, United Steelworkers Local 2251, and even the Mayor.
You’ll hear from relevant experts that have studied environmental protections and industrial pollution in great detail.
Finally, you’ll hear from intrepid local residents that are determined to change the status quo.
This series is obviously a story about industrial pollution in Sault Ste. Marie, but it’s also about the city itself.
It’s about public accountability and transparency, or the lack thereof.
It’s about the state of public discourse, and the beginning of difficult but necessary conversations.
It’s about amplifying issues and voices that are too easily ignored, an imperative that local media hasn’t consistently addressed.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world is changing rapidly, even if we aren’t moving all that much.
The decisions in front of us aren’t just important; they’re the difference between writing our own future or being dragged there reluctantly.
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