Recently, there has been a realization that a Health Environmental Assessment (HEA) should be part and parcel of all environmental assessments, which seems to have been bypassed in the proposal to reopen the St. Lawrence mine. A full HEA should be mandatory. Nobody, least of all the good people of St. Lawrence and surrounding communities, should keep quiet until independent persons perform this.
Like Simms, I spent a short time in St. Lawrence. I was a cottage hospital doctor in 1963 for less than one year and in that time saw more patients with lung cancer than I saw in the next decade elsewhere in Newfoundland. I wrote to the government of the time requesting compensation for the widows and orphans of this epidemic of lung cancer (for that is what it was, an epidemic), just as the German government earlier in the century had recognized that working in a radioactive mine should entail compensation for the victims.
Shortly after writing to the Smallwood government, I was transferred to the west coast of Newfoundland where I have spent the last 50 years practising medicine.
The problem at St. Lawrence is not just “the dust.” Yes, the dust contains hazardous silica particles; but radioactive radon gas (generated from uranium and radium in the rock) percolating from deeper in the earth is the big problem. It is well recognized that radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer throughout the world, after cigarettes.
While I was living in St. Lawrence, I spoke to a miner, a Mr. Turpin, about the safety and monitoring procedures. Evidently the miners were told that the men who had died had all worked at the old Poynter Mine, but that the new Alcan mine was safe, as radon levels were monitored by Atomic Energy of Canada, and random spot checks were conducted. However, he added, “We know when checks are coming, as a shift is cancelled and the extractor fans and pumps are left running.”
Alcan pulled out in 1978 after Elliott Leyton’s 1975 book “Dying Hard” exposed the real situation in St. Lawrence and workers’ compensation was going to be introduced. I still remember the Turpins, Slaneys, Edwards and Walshes from St. Lawrence, Little St. Lawrence and Lawn who died in this appalling industrial tragedy.
Knowing that radon gas will almost certainly be present in the mine’s air, questions needing satisfactory answers include:
1. Has the new owner been apprised of the situation regarding radioactive gas in the mine? Will exhaust fans be operated continuously?
2. What levels of radon in the air will be considered acceptable?
3. Who will be responsible for monitoring radioactivity in the mine?
4. How often will the air be monitored?
5. Who will determine that the levels are too dangerous and shut down operations?
Furthermore, what are the plans for mitigation and compensation when silicosis and lung cancer reappear?
Without such a careful appraisal prior to reopening the mine, I worry that history will repeat itself for the third or fourth time.
Dr. Ian Simpson