Rio Algom's Track Record

Year 2000: Rio Algom announces strong first quarter
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In January 1998, Exxon sold its 50% share of the Crandon mine project to its partner, Rio Algom Ltd., which formed a new subsidiary called the Nicolet Minerals Company. Exxon, however, still retains an interest in the zinc-copper project. If the state of Wisconsin ever permits the project, Exxon would receive a net profits royalty of between 2.25% and 3.75% (indexed to the price of zinc), plus a $5 million bonus should production begin.

The new sole owner of the Crandon project is a giant in the industry, and has a far more controversial mining record around North America than Exxon has ever had. Rio Algom is a Toronto-based mining company with interests in copper, molybdenum, coal, tin, zinc, silver, uranium, as well as an international metals distribution business. Many of Rio Algom's projects have been found to have caused environmental and economic damage. In each case where mine reclamation (cleanup) has begun, significant time passed between site closure and cleanup work, adding extra costs for the company and causing needless damage to the environment. Nearly all of Rio Algom's mines have suffered early or unexpected closures--resulting in massive layoffs and economic upheavals.

Rio Algom was originally the Canadian arm of the world's largest mining firm, London-based Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ). In 1955, RTZ acquired a substantial interest in several Ontario uranium mines near the northern shore of Lake Huron, collectively known as the Elliot Lake complex. During the U.S. nuclear weapons buildup of the 1950s- 60s, there were 12 mines in the area, employing over 10,000 workers. These mines were combined under Rio Algom in 1960, and over the next 30 years were identified with one of the world's most notorious examples of radioactive contamination of the environment.

By 1976, Ontario officials documented that all 55 miles of the Serpent River system, including more than a dozen lakes, were badly contaminated. The wastes from the Elliot Lake mines are acid-generating due to sulfides, and highly-radioactive due to the inefficiency of uranium milling. Typically, more than 85% of the radioactive byproducts, (radium and radon) end up in the waste tailings. The report also pointed out that there were no fish living in the entire river downstream from the mining wastes (another company there, Denison, also contributed to the problems) Through 1978, more than 30 tailings dam failures (this number is the total from both companies) were reported. And as recently as August 1993, Canada's Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) charged Rio Algom with one count of failure to prevent a "reasonably foreseeable" waste spill. A power failure at Stanleigh caused a 2 million liter (500,000 gallons) spill of radioactive and chemically contaminated water in McCabe Lake. All but one of the mines were closed by 1990, and the last, Stanleigh, closed in 1996.

In 1992, RTZ sold its 51.4% stake in Rio Algom, explaining that it was to avoid competition with other North American interests such as its Kennecott Copper affiliate (operator of the Ladysmith mine in Wisconsin). However, industry experts interviewed by the Canadian mining industry news- paper The Northern Miner said that more important were "the potential liabilities related to the decommissioning of Rio's Elliot Lake, Ontario uranium mine."

Reports from the Ontario Workman's Compensation Board (1969) and the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines (1976), showed abnormally high levels of lung cancers among Elliot Lake miners. Homer Seguin, former United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Area Coordinator for Northeast Ontario, says "Rio Algom has a terrible track record in terms of protection of the environ- ment and protection of workers in the workplace." Former USWA National Director for Health and Safety Kenneth Valentine wrote in 1980 that the companies at Elliot Lake "should have their license revoked" since "untold numbers of people have died" from miners' dust exposure (silicosis) and radiation-linked lung cancer. The provincial health ministry estimated miners' lung cancer cases to exceed average rates by 300-500 percent.

Since they have closed, Rio Algom's Stanleigh, Quirke, and Panel mines have received decommissioning licenses from the Atomic Energy Control Board. This was the stamp of approval needed to proceed with reclamation plans that involve flooding the highly radioactive and acid-producing sulfide wastes behind dams. This reclamation concept was the cheapest alternative available to Rio Algom, in that no further relocation or engineered covers over the tailings was required. The approved plans were dubbed by critics as "Flood and Flee," due to Rio Algom's ultimate goal of handing its Elliot Lake properties back to Canada. (Quirke operated from 1956-61 and 1970-90 and produce 46 million tons of tailings and waste rock. Panel operated from 1958- 61 and 1979-90, and produced 16 million tons of wastes. Stanleigh operated from 1957-68 and 1983-96, with 20 million tons of wastes produced.)

In 1996, Rio Algom set an additional Can.$60 million aside for future reclamation costs at its remaining Elliot Lake mines. In the next few years, four other closed mines will have closure and reclamation plans licensed and regulated by the AECB. (They are: Pronto, 1955-60 and produced 4 million tons of waste [2 million of which came from the Pater copper mine]; Lacnor, 1957-60, 3 million tons of waste; Nordic, 1957-68, 12 million tons; and Spanish American, 1958-59, where 400,000 tons of wastes were dumped into Olive Lake. In 1994, 35 years after the mine closed, tailings in Olive Lake were moved to deeper water and the lake level raised to cover the wastes. Three more Rio Algom mines, Milliken, Buckles, and Pater are considered reclaimed.) In all, more than 100 million tons of wastes considered by Canada's regulators as "perpetually hazardous" were deposited at Elliot Lake by Rio Algom.

The Poirier mine produced copper and zinc from 1966 to 1975, and closed due to low copper prices, putting 200 miners of work. The 123-acre site, located about 200 kilometers north of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, is classified by Canadian regulators as one of the province's worst toxic waste dump,s due to acid mine drainage. When Rio Algom sold the mine in 1985 for one Canadian dollar, it insisted the buyers take out a Can.$1.5 million mortgage to cover future cleanup costs. The threat of cleanup costs scared away investors, and generated a scandal when a Quebec Environment Department official (who was also an investor in the mine) pressed a colleague to go easy on Rio Algom and avoid the cleanup. The reclamation plan has as yet not been approved, but its estimated costs will be Can.$10-20 million. A new Quebec law has made the former operator, Rio Algom, responsible for site cleanup.

The East Kemptville tin mine in Nova Scotia operated from 1984 to 1992, when it shut down prematurely due to poor tin prices and high production costs. The mine had been projected to operate for 17 years. Almost immediately after the mine opened, local residents found that Big Meadow Brook and the Tusket River were a muddy brown color from runoff at the mine site. In 1986, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans charged Rio Algom under Section 33 of the Fisheries Act. As a result, Rio Algom was forced to subdivide the tailings area (to settle out solids) and to treat effluents prior to discharge. A reclamation plan was conditionally approved in 1994, but incidents of uncontrolled discharges of wastewater and windblown tailings were reported through that year. In 1996, Rio Algom reported that acidity levels and costs at the mine were higher than expected and could result in a longer decommissioning period. In 1997, Rio Algom reported that it expects to treat the water "for a number of decades before the generation of acid ceases naturally."

The Lisbon uranium operation, located near Moab, Utah began operations in 1972 but closed in 1988, putting 150 miners out of work. Rio Algom is currently decommission- ing the site, which contains 4 million tons of uranium mill tailings. Groundwater contaminated by seepage from the tailings dump is being pumped to evaporation ponds. At the former mill site, soil contaminated due to processing and ore storage is being collected and put into the tailings dump. Rio Algom reported in 1997 that the tailings are now covered with a soil and clay liner.

Mill tailings at Rio Algom's U.S. uranium mines (run by its wholly-owned subsidiary Rio Algom Mining Corporation or RAMC) are regulated under Title II of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978. The U.S. Depart- ment of Energy (DOE) describes Type II tailings as "...a long-term hazard to public health and safety. The most hazardous radioactive constituent in uranium mill tailings is radium which has a very long half-life. Radium, besides being hazardous itself, produces radon, a radioactive gas whose decay products can cause lung cancer. This makes mill tailings hazardous for thousands of years."

In 1989, Rio Algom acquired Kerr-McGee's Quivira Mining Company at Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico. The properties consist of a mill and nine "closed" underground mines. Although surface facilities are now gone from each mine, Rio Algom is recovering uranium via solution mining in some of the mines. Mine water is circulated through the mines and treated to recover the uranium. Contaminated groundwater at the site is also pumped and treated for uranium recovery.

Ambrosia Lake is also the home of America's largest uranium tailings dump, consisting of 30 million tons of waste. Although the company reports progress on decommissioning the site, Rio Algom also reported that it suffered a dam failure in September 1997 when heavy rains knocked out the wastewater discharge outfall and weir. In 1997, the company guaranteed $24 million to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Quivira's decommissioning activities.

Rio Algom owns a 33.6% interest in the Highland Valley open-pit mine (copper, silver, molybdenum) in Logan Lake, British Columbia, which opened in 1972 and became Canada's largest base metal mine. In January 1999, it was announced that the mine would go on indefinite shutdown, affecting the 1,046 employees--represented by the United Steelworkers. The company lost $8 million in the 4th quarter of 1998. The company had been looking for a rebound in copper prices or government and/or labor concessions to help keep the mine open, but the mine was shot down in May 1999. Because the mine is not completely closing, the staff will not receive severance or assistance packages.

Rio Algom is extracting uranium in Wyoming via "in situ leaching." This method of mining involves injecting water with added oxygen and sodium bicarbonate into rock formations to dissolve the uranium. The mixture is then pumped to a surface processing plant for separation. General issues and concerns with this type of mining include: groundwater contamination in aquifers outside of the target zone, difficulties with restoring groundwater quality post-mining, and surface spills.

In addition, Rio Algom has recently opened major base metal mines in Chile (Alumbrera-gold, copper), and Colombia (Cerro Colorado-copper, zinc) To date, minor environmental problems, such as locally contained spills, have been reported. Rio Algom has financial interests in: the Highland Valley mine in British Columbia (copper, silver, molybdenum); the Polaris mine in the Canadian Arctic (zinc and lead); the Bullmoose coal mine in British Columbia.

Clearly, the track record of Rio Algom, Ltd. must be further examined by Wisconsin citizens, and local, state, and federal agencies, in assessing its Crandon mine permit application. No matter what stance one may have on the safety of metallic sulfide mining, the question of whether this specific company would be a good Wisconsin corporate citizen is open to some question. Notably, in its 1997 annual report, Rio Algom comments on risks associated with its various projects that must be "carefully managed." Among these risks is, "...the potential for permitting delays to affect the feasibility of the Crandon project in Wisconsin."



Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin Inc.
PO Box 55372, Madison WI 55372
phone: (888) 211-7271

Wolf Watershed Education Project.
P.O. Box 14382, Madison WI 53714-4382
Toll-free Hotline: (800) 445-8615


  • Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, "Elliot Lake Uranium Mine Tailings Areas Environmental Assessment Panel- Recommendations", 1996.
  • Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., "Uranium: The Deadliest Metal", Perception magazine, v.10 n.12, 1992.
  • Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., "Nuclear Wastes: What, Me Worry?," comment paper to House of Commons Standing Committee on National Resources and Public Works, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, 1978.
  • Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., "Nuclear Wastes: What, Me Worry?," Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, 1987 addendum.
  • Gordon Edwards, Ph.D. et al, "URANIUM-A Discussion Guide", The National Film Board of Canada, 1990.
  • "Elliot Lake Mine Decommissioning Field Tour", Field Guide, Summer 1995.
  • Graeme Hamilton, "Ex-bureaucrat convicted of corruption," The Gazette, Montreal, 10/29/94.
  • Robert Imrie, "Mining Firm has stain on record", Wisconsin State Journal, 8/17/98.
  • Robert Imrie, "Regulator unaware of polluted mine", Wisconsin State Journal, 8/17/98.
  • Roger Moody, "The Gulliver File", London: Minewatch, 1992.
  • Roger Moody, "Plunder!", PARTiZANS/CAFCA, 1991.
  • Roger Payne, "Decommissioning of Elliot Lake Mining Properties", In: Proceedings of Sudbury `95-Mining and the Environment, CANMET, 1995.
  • Natural Resources Canada, "Licencing For Decommissioning of Uranium Mine Tailings Management Areas Can Proceed", Release, 4/2/97.
  • New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Dept.-Mining and Minerals Division, various Mine and Mill site records.
  • Northwatch, personal communications.
  • Nova Scotians for a Clean Environment, personal communication.
  • Nova Scotians for a Clean Environment, correspondence with Nova Scotia Dept. of the Environment, 2/94.
  • Nuclear Awareness Project, "Uranium Tailings in Elliot Lake", Nuclear Awareness News, Winter 1993-94.
  • Rio Algom, Ltd., Annual Reports, 1994, 1996, 1997.
  • Rio Algom, Ltd., "Environmental Report", 1997.
  • Rio Algom, Ltd., "Responsible Mining for the 21st Century", 1997.
  • Rio Algom Ltd., "Annual Information Form", 1997.
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy, "Integrated Data Base Report-1996: -U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel and Radioactive Waste. Inventories, Projections, and Characteristics", Revision 13, 12/97.
  • U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Technical Information Paper:19", 1998.
  • Tusket River Environmental Protection Alliance, Background Report, 1998. Tom Wharton, "Will Canyonlands survive the latest boom?", Salt Lake Tribune, 3/24/91.
  • Wisconsin Review Commission, "Report on the Track Records of Exxon and Rio Algom", Wisconsin Review Commission, March 1995,
  • World Information Service on Energy, Uranium Project, "Impacts of Uranium In-Situ Leaching", 7/98.


Note: for background see the Wisconsin Review Commission at and the Committee of Labor Against Sulfide Pollution (CLASP) at

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