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The Underground Giant: Life in the Hard Rock Mines of Quebec and Ontario


[clock] 12-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2010


The Cage

Shaft miner at the 2,500-foot-level station before mucking and drilling, Louvicourt Mine, Val-d'Or, Quebec.
Shaft miner at the 2,500-foot-level station before mucking and drilling, Louvicourt Mine, Val-d’Or, Quebec.

I tag in. I am a number now. The worn, round metal tag hangs on a nail next to the level I will be working today. My number is my birth year—1968. If I don’t come up from the mine, they know where to start looking for me. Then I walk to the headframe.

Inside, the cool smell of the earth breathes up the shaft like air from the throat of some buried, sleeping giant. Miners gather around the shaft and drop their lunch boxes by their feet, some sipping coffee, some still milling outside to have a smoke. They carry drill bits and steel for a day of blasting. They wear coveralls, oilers, and shaft hats covered in crusty dirt and grease. After a day in the dry (the room where their work clothes are left to bake in the heat after each shift), the smell of industrial oil and grease overpowers any body odor. Sweat is eaten by oil. The underground consumes all.

Kerr Mine No. 3 Shaft headframe and crusher house, Virginiatown, Ontario.
Kerr Mine No. 3 Shaft headframe and crusher house, Virginiatown, Ontario.
Miners entering the cage for the beginning of day shift at Kerr Mine No. 3 Shaft.
Miners entering the cage for the beginning of day shift at Kerr Mine No. 3 Shaft.

I watch the greased hoist cable move up the shaft. The shift is over, the cage returning to the surface. Then the cable slows and the cage full of men appears, beams of light from their lamps peering, like the eyes of insects, through the darkness. The gate opens, and they all stream out, relieved, moving without hesitation to the shift boss wicket, reporting what they have done, and trudging straight to the showers. Then, like Charon beckoning, the cage tender rattles the gate, and we all pack tight into the wet, rust-covered cage. The tender rings a series of signals down a rope to the hoistman, and we begin to descend. The cage tender yells out as we approach each new level, going deeper and deeper, and slowly the cage empties.

The late Lester Beattie smoking after drilling in a bypass drift at the 1,450-foot level of the Kerr Mine. Beattie suffered from 'white hand,' also known as Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome.
The late Lester Beattie smoking after drilling in a bypass drift at the 1,450-foot level of the Kerr Mine. Beattie suffered from “white hand,” also known as Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome.

At the 1,300-foot level, I get out with Lester Beattie. Lester is known as a packsack miner, the nickname given to itinerant workers who float from mine to mine, hired guns taking the hardest and highest-paying jobs before moving on. Lester has worked in so many mines that he seems more at home underground than on the surface, and he has put in so many hours that he has developed “white hand,” a condition caused by drilling until the vibration destroys your circulation and turns your hands ghostly. Several times doctors have threatened to amputate Lester’s fingers. Still, he considers himself fortunate, one of the lucky survivors from a cohort of cancer-riddled men who worked the uranium mines in Elliot Lake and the gold mines of Kirkland Lake.

Driving a ramp with a jumbo drill for the Kidd D Mine expansion at the 8,000-foot level of the Kidd Creek Mine, Timmins, Ontario.
Driving a ramp with a jumbo drill for the Kidd D Mine expansion at the 8,000-foot level of the Kidd Creek Mine, Timmins, Ontario.

We walk out into the station, the air humming from the ventilation fan down the drift—a horizontal tunnel off the shaft. We get into a train-like vehicle, known simply as a motor, and start down the drift on the track. Everything about hard rock mines feels makeshift—ramshackle and jerry-built—yet it is a miracle what command we have of the underground. It is surreal. You can only see what your headlamp illuminates, but everywhere I look is evidence of human industry. And around that, everything is black.

 


Click to watch Louie Palu’s slideshow “The Golden Triangle”


The Land of Giants

Slag heaps, smoke stacks, and rock blackened by decades of emissions from the Coniston Smelter, Coniston, Ontario.
Slag heaps, smoke stacks, and rock blackened by decades of emissions from the Coniston Smelter, Coniston, Ontario.

The image of Canada as an untouched pristine wilderness is a myth. In the world of mining, it is a land of giants—home to massive deposits of almost every mineral and metal bought and sold on commodity markets throughout the world, a global leader in extraction and processing. Nickel, copper, silver, zinc, cobalt, rare earth metals, and the list goes on. The world’s largest gold producing company, Barrick Gold Corporation is based in Toronto, not New York or London. Canada has long been a natural resource pillar in the worlds of production and the trading of commodities. From the hammering of the jackleg and jumbo drills underground to the ringing of the stock exchange bells, corporate empires have been built on the riches extracted from the Canadian Shield. And within that rich geological formation, straddling Northeast Ontario and reaching into Northeastern Quebec, is a region the industry has dubbed the Golden Triangle—a hard rock mining Mecca stretching from Val-d’Or in Quebec, west to Timmins in Ontario, and south to Sudbury, one of the world’s largest and oldest nickel mining capitols. It has attracted just about every mining corporation in the world for over one hundred years. It beckons legions of miners, shaft sinkers, and diamond drillers known throughout the industry for their skill and unmatched determination. It is said they would tunnel to the center of the earth if asked.

Shaft miners drilling a shaft with jumbo drills at the 2,500-foot level station of the Louvicourt Mine.
Shaft miners drilling a shaft with jumbo drills at the 2,500-foot level station of the Louvicourt Mine.

The Kidd Creek Mine, north of Sudbury, is a wonder of such work. Already the world’s deepest base metal mine, it just keeps going down, plummeting toward a depth of almost ten thousand feet. And there seems to be no end to its ore. The tunneling there is so extensive that it has caused unnatural seismic movements, known as rock bursts or what miners call “bumps.” Down in the mine, when the drills stop, you can hear the ground cracking, like a wooden ship with a damaged hull lost in a sea of darkness. Sometimes the ground shifts enough that something breaks loose, and there are only rock bolts and mesh fencing holding the earth at bay. After a fresh blast, the miners always take scaling bars and poke around the ceiling and walls; they listen for hollow sounds below that indicate ore passes, and they search overhead for unsecured rock, which they call “loose.” Do it wrong and you’re dead—disappearing into a pit or crushed under tons of rock.

Scaling loose from the back at the 1,000-foot level of the Cheminis Mine, Larder Lake, Ontario.
Scaling loose from the back at the 1,000-foot level of the Cheminis Mine, Larder Lake, Ontario.
Rockbolting and screening at the 6,900-foot level of the Macassa Mine, Kirkland Lake, Ontario.
Rockbolting and screening at the 6,900-foot level of the Macassa Mine, Kirkland Lake, Ontario.

The death toll of mine workers killed on the job in Ontario alone in the past century exceeds three thousand, but there have been many thousands more cases of industrial disease, such as silicosis, and brutal, often debilitating injuries. Flesh and bone always lose out to steel, explosives, and rock. In the early days, the metal the miners hauled out was used to make alloys like brass. It was used to galvanize weaker metals, to make longer beams and stronger pipes. Today, though, most of these metals wind up in electronics; these risks are all taken in the name of producing materials for cell phones and computers. This is what companies mean when they say they are moving to paperless communication or going green.

 


The Super Stack

A house on Union Street adjacent to the Inco Superstack, one of the tallest freestanding stacks in the world, Copper Cliff Smelter Complex, Sudbury, Ontario.
A house on Union Street adjacent to the Inco Superstack, one of the tallest freestanding stacks in the world, Copper Cliff Smelter Complex, Sudbury, Ontario.

After rock is mined, it is run through multiple crushers, pounded and pulverized until it is a size that can be put through a milling process where the valuable metals are removed, using sulfuric acid, chlorine, copper sulphate, and cyanide, among other chemicals. From that crushing and processing, two things result: a raw liquid concentrate that can be smelted and refined into pure metals, and a fine powder of crushed rock which is waste and must be disposed of. The Clarabelle Mill in Sudbury, operated by Vale Inco, has the capacity to process thirty-five thousand tonnes of ore a day—leaving many thousand tonnes more of waste rock to deal with.

Some of that waste can be used as backfill underground, but much of it is dumped into designated, government-approved lakes or manufactured tailings ponds. The companies have engineers who test the waste and provide detailed data showing that none of the chemicals used in processing ever makes its way into the tailings; the tailings ponds, they insist, are perfectly safe. But whenever I go to visit one, it always appears dead—the choked water empty of fish or frogs, the banks stark and leafless.

A furnace tapper using a thermal lance to test the purity of molten nickel. The furnace at the Falconbridge Smelter operates at over 1,000 degrees centigrade.
A furnace tapper using a thermal lance to test the purity of molten nickel. The furnace at the Falconbridge Smelter operates at over 1,000 degrees centigrade.
Converter aisle, Falconbridge Smelter, Falconbridge, Ontario.
Converter aisle, Falconbridge Smelter, Falconbridge, Ontario.

 

 

Nearby plumes of smoke lift from towering smelter stacks, designed to rise high enough to scatter emissions as far from town as possible. The Inco Superstack at the Copper Cliff Smelter in Sudbury emits sulphur dioxide (SO2) and for a long time has been one of the top polluters in North America. Many workers from the smelter have told me that the company turns up the production at night so the polluting plume at its peak is harder to see and is not as likely to come under scrutiny. Sudbury is slowly being cleaned up, but parts of it are still barren wastes. There is an urban legend that the landscape was so devastated in the early seventies that NASA tested its moon vehicles here. In fact, they were there to study Sudbury’s shatter cone formations, but it’s easy to see how the myth took hold. One summer I saw signs posted up, advertising compensation to townspeople whose vehicles had been damaged by corrosion from smelter emissions.

Landa and Eric Cormier, who lost his arm in an electrical accident at the Falconbridge Smelter, at their home in Garson, Ontario.
Landa and Eric Cormier, who lost his arm in an electrical accident at the Falconbridge Smelter, at their home in Garson, Ontario.

So you can imagine what it’s like inside the smelter. Molten red metal, slag, fire and sparks, steam and gas. And everything is coated with dust. During the bitter Ontario winters, your front burns from the heat of the smelter and your back freezes from sub-zero winds. It is a cavernous industrial space that seems to unleash then harness the apocalypse. Like the mine, the smelter is unforgiving. The machinery is so big and so hot that a small mistake can leave you hobbled or burned to a crisp—and there is no shortage of ways that you can be crippled or cooked. Dwight Harper was working in a smelter when an unexpected leak of molten nickel filled his boot. He was lucky to keep his foot. Eric Cormier was not so fortunate. He was zapped with so much electricity his arm was burned black and later had to be amputated. It is a miracle he is alive.

 


McIntyre Powder

Miners drilling a crosscut on a ramp
with jackleg drills at the 1,750-foot
level of the Kerr Mine.
Miners drilling a crosscut on a ramp with jackleg drills at the 1,750-foot level of the Kerr Mine.

Underground mining of gold and uranium in this region produces high silica content in the air, and an overwhelming number of miners suffer from the severe lung damage known as silicosis. To combat this problem, many companies in the forties began forcing workers to inhale a fine aluminum dust called McIntyre Powder to coat their lungs, under the mistaken belief that it would prevent damage from the silica; it was mandatory in many mines. The practice was finally discontinued in the seventies, but many in the region blame the treatment for a host of ailments among older miners, particularly Alzheimer’s.

Steve Allen sitting in front of a Cavo 320 mucking machine at the 1,450-foot level of the Kerr Mine.
Steve Allen sitting in front of a Cavo 320 mucking machine at the 1,450-foot level of the Kerr Mine.

Just as this practice was coming to an end, the use of diesel-powered machines underground was growing. Most important among them was the scooptram, a powerful loader used to move massive amounts of mined rock and flattened to fit through narrow tunnels; without it most modern mines would come to a standstill. But the introduction of diesel equipment created intense, noxious fumes. To combat the problem, many mines have installed high tech ventilation systems. When the ventilation is working you can actually feel a cold breeze in many areas, but when the ventilation is not working, especially in a mining area, the heat and fumes from the scooptram are suffocating. On one shaft project in Val-d’Or, I inhaled diesel fumes for hours, spitting and blowing black slime from my nose all day. Even on the best days, I always chew gum to mask the taste of diesel.

Lola Angus on a swing in the grade school playground adjacent to the Right of Way Mine property, Cobalt, Ontario.
Lola Angus on a swing in the grade school playground adjacent to the Right of Way Mine property, Cobalt, Ontario.

The deeper you go, the narrower the confines. The air gets hotter and harder to breathe. The explosions and pounding drills are deafening. When you come to a mining area, it is like approaching the frontline of a war. After a blast, it smells like ammonia from the explosives. Then comes the enamel odor of spray paint used for marking the next drilling pattern or mining directions from the geologists and engineers. The jackleg drills start and a mist of water used to lubricate the drill bit clouds the working face of rock. There’s a little oil in the mist. We breathe that in—though union leaders have warned it causes cancer. The company has their own doctors to discount the mine as the source of any illness anyone has. Not much has changed since the days of McIntyre Powder.

The late Jack Murnaghan, a retired union organizer, holding his retirement gift—a photo of the Macassa Mine where he had worked.
The late Jack Murnaghan, a retired union organizer, holding his retirement gift—a photo of the Macassa Mine where he had worked.

On one trip, I met Jack Murnaghan, one of the last living union leaders of the 1941 strike in Kirkland Lake. It was a landmark strike that energized unions across the region. At the time the Mine Mill Union was bitterly battling company oppression in many of the mining camps. While we spoke about a cave-in, in which he had been nearly buried alive, Jack kept losing track of the conversation and asking me the same questions over and over again; he had advancing Alzheimer’s. He grabbed a framed photograph from his wall; it was a picture of the headframe where he had worked. His hands were like huge claws, and his blunt thick fingers curled around the frame like a dead spider’s legs. The picture was a gift to him from the union for his forty-three years on the job, a reminder of the hole he mined every day of his working life.

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