ENVIRONMENT

Reopening the death pits

PEETER KOPVILLEM November 25 1985
ENVIRONMENT

Reopening the death pits

PEETER KOPVILLEM November 25 1985

Reopening the death pits

ENVIRONMENT

The chill Atlantic wind blows over the southern Newfoundland outport of St. Lawrence, brushing the gravestones in the community graveyards. There, at least 200 miners are buried, victims of what surviving residents call the town’s “death pits”: mining shafts that lead 1,000 feet underground to deposits of fluorspar. From 1933 on the mine produced countless tons of the yellow-green mineral, used primarily to get rid of impurities in steel and aluminum processing. But at the same time, radioactive radon gas from nearby trace deposits of uranium seeped into the shafts and caused lung cancer among the miners. But the mine, which closed in 1978, may soon open again because of a spring, 1984, agreement between the provincial and federal governments—which are also subsidizing the venture—and British mining company Minworth Ltd. Minworth has said that new ventilation systems will make the mine safe. And many people in the 2,000-strong community—with an unemployment rate of 90 per cent—say

that they welcome the reopening. Declared Mayor George Doyle: “The people are interested in getting back to work.”

St. Lawrence has a legacy of disaster. In 1929 a tidal wave destroyed the town’s fishing fleet and by shifting the ocean floor also destroyed fish feeding

Miners may have been exposed to radiation levels up to 30 times greater than the current limit that is allowable

grounds. As a result, when New York promoter Walter Seibert arrived in 1933 to mine the fluorspar deposit, he found villagers—many of them living on 6^2 cents a day in government assistance-eager to work in the unventilated shafts. By 1936 many of the town’s men were spending 10 to 12 hours a day mining fluorspar under conditions so

dangerous that face masks became clogged within minutes and a miner could not see the man working next to him because of dust. Three years later Montreal-based Alcan Aluminium Ltd. also began mining the site, and after Seibert closed his mine in 1957 the company bought him out for $2 million.

By then the mine had already become a source of tragedy. Within 10 years of its opening, miners began to succumb to tuberculosis—caused by dust inhalation—and a mysterious illness that was not diagnosed until 1958 by federal health officials. The disease: lung cancer, caused by massive radiation poisoning.

As a result, Alcan began to install ventilation systems in 1960. But the company found itself faced with a growing health compensation bill for miners, their widows and children. Those setbacks, coupled with three lengthy strikes over compensation, wages and working conditions that led to a total of 65 lost work weeks between 1970 and 1976, convinced the company in 1978 to close down the St. Lawrence operation and import lower-cost fluorspar from Mexico.

Then, in 1984 the Newfoundland government began to look for a new operator for the St. Lawrence mine. One reason: government spokesmen said that according to mining analysts worldwide demand for fluorspar would increase considerably by 1986. In early 1984 the government granted Minworth, one of several companies that applied to administer the mine, exclusive rights to the St. Lawrence deposit—estimated to be the world’s largest. Minworth officials estimated that it would cost $14.8 million to reopen the mine, and they said that by this year the company would begin shipping the first loads of fluorspar produced by the mine. The company also guaranteed that the shafts would be safe because of a modern ventilation system which will flush out all gas and dust. As well, officials said that the miners’ health will be closely monitored through annual medical checkups.

But since the agreement was signed, the company has experienced difficulty in keeping to its schedule. By the end of March, 1984, Minworth had been unable to find a Canadian partner for the venture in order to qualify for $7 million in grants under a provincial-federal regional development program. As a result, the provincial government—with an investment of $1.5 million—itself decided to assume the role of temporary partner. And construction work on an office extension and mill buildings did not begin until last month. Company officials now say that the earliest date for ore production is late 1986.

As well, spokesmen for some orga-

nized labor groups have criticized the accord. For one thing, a meeting between company officials and the St. Lawrence town council established conditions under which the company would prefer to hire townspeople. The terms of the understanding: for the course of a three-year contract wages would remain between $9 and $11 an hour—almost 40 per cent less than comparable mine wages in Ontario—and unionization would be discouraged. Those terms have led to protests from the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL), whose president, William Parsons, said that any such agreement would contravene the Newfoundland Labour Relations Act, which specifies that all employees can join the union of their choice. Parsons told Maclean's: “We don’t need the kind of corporate mentality that the government is inviting to this province. Minworth has gone down there looking like Santa Claus, and everyone is putting in their order.” As a result, Parsons is urging miners to reject the terms. Added Parsons: “I hope a Newfoundlander has more moxie than that. But about 300 residents have already applied for about 120 jobs which will become available when the mine begins production. And Doyle, a former Confederation of National Trade Unions organizer, says that although a labor agreement has not been officially

signed, Minworth should be given a chance to proceed. Doyle added that excessive labor demands could harm the company’s operations. Declared the mayor, who signed on as Minworth’s local purchasing and personnel co-ordinator in October, 1984: “I still consider myself a good union man. It’s all right for people to come here and say we have to protect people in St. Lawrence, but we never heard of them when the mines closed down.”

Many townspeople say that Doyle has compromised his office by becoming a Minworth employee. Said town councillor Samuel Tobin: “He has lost the credibility that he had. As mayor he was taking people’s applications at the same time that he was giving Minworth guarantees. People are so desperate for work here that they would agree to anything. I think this was taking advantage of a serious situation.” For his part, former miner and union activist Michael Slaney says that even desperation will not lead townspeople to accept unreasonable conditions. He added: “Over the years we have experienced quite a few situations where we held our ground. Any reoccurrence of unfairness and Minworth will find that people here will organize very quickly.”

PEETER KOPVILLEM

PETER GARD