Fumes, forests and further studies: Environmental science and policy inaction in Ontario

Munton, Don

That smoke will go very far sometimes, it go with the wind. Moe Leduc, resident, Sudbury, Ontario, 1926

In northern Ontario, large areas of forest have been severely affected by sulphur dioxide over long periods of time. S.N. Linzon, Ontario Ministry of Environment, 1972

This problem has received a great deal of study by this Department, the Department of Mines, and others… Department of Lands and Forests, 1964(1)

It did not take visitors long to notice the dead and dying trees surrounding Peter and Trudy Peloquin’s wilderness fishing camp on Lake Chiniguchi, northeast of Sudbury, Ontario. One of them, James H. Harless, a businessman from West Virginia, wrote to the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests in August 1964. Harless was clearly disturbed by what he saw and was in no doubt as to the source of the problem. He also clearly believed there was a solution. “The smeltering plants are vital to the economy,” he wrote, “but at the same time they can prosper and eliminate this devastating waste to the forest lands…. I was amazed to learn that nothing had been done to correct this situation in the past twenty to twenty-five years.”2

The government’s response to Mr. Harless’s letter was less than comforting. The chief of the department’s Timber Branch disputed neither the fact of injury to the forests nor the attributed cause. He also made no attempt to mask the essence of the government’s view of the problem. He took issue only with the suggestion of utter inaction. “While there is no doubt that great, and in many instances irreparable damage has been done to vegetation in this area,” the letter acknowledged, “you may rest assured that this problem has received a great deal of study by this Department, the Department of Mines, and others… It is naturally our hope that the recovery of sulphur will become economic soon and that the damage to forest cover and other vegetation alleviated.”3

There had indeed been much study by the mid-1960s into the environmental problems stemming from the two large smelter complexes near Sudbury, owned and operated by International Nickel (Inco) and Falconbridge Nickel.4 And more studies were to follow in the late 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, amidst public concerns about “acid rain,” myriad scientific investigations were focused on the negative effects of sulphur dioxide (SO^sub 2^) emissions on Ontario’s lakes and streams. Well before acid rain became a household word, however, and before dying lakes and fish became everyday fare in the media, considerable scientific work had been conducted on the effect of air pollution on the forests of northern Ontario. Indeed, this research goes back decades. As we shall see, it began around the time of the famous Trail smelter pollution case in the 1930s. That investigation, largely conducted in the 1930s, grew out of an American complaint that SO^sub 2^ emissions from the Cominco smelter in Trail, British Columbia, were damaging farmlands and trees in the state of Washington.5

The environmental story about acid-rain-damaged lakes and streams in Ontario in the 1980s is reasonably well-known. The story about damaged forests in the 1950s is not. One of the primary purposes of this article is to explore these neglected pages in the history of environmental research and policy making in Canada.6 In one sense, this article might be seen as confirming and extending into the area of environmental history and policy studies the pioneering analysis of H. V. Nelles in his classic book The Politics of Development.7 The Ontario forests story also offers a somewhat different perspective to the usual construction of the acid rain case and offers a corrective to conventional assumptions about a more or less direct relationship between science and environmental policy. Scientific work in the 1970s and 1980s into acid rain had a strong effect on arousing governments and publics and reducing sulphur emissions. A similar pattern of science and policy unfolded internationally, for example, in the case of stratospheric ozone depletion.8 The much earlier scientific investigations into forest damage in Ontario from the same emissions that caused acid rain did not have any such impact.9 A second purpose of this article is to explore the process by which investigations in the Sudbury area were conducted and then ignored, and to understand why the knowledge gained did not lead even indirectly ?to government policy changes.10

Earliest Studies

In June 1938, W.R. Haddow, soon to join the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, wrote to R.H. “Bob” Murray, the Ontario Sulphur Fumes Arbitrator. He reported foresters in the Temagami area northeast of Sudbury were finding extensive browning of pine, particularly in Scholes township west of Lake Temagami. That spring one forestry official had smelled sulphur fumes quite strongly while flying over the lake about a hundred kilometres from Sudbury. “I am just passing on this information,” Haddow noted. “I thought you would be interested.”11

Under 1920s-era provincial legislation, the Damage by Fumes Arbitration Act, Murray’s job was specifically to arbitrate claims for damage due to smelter smoke. Given that Haddow wrote to Murray, therefore, he likely suspected the Sudbury area smelters, rather than some alternative cause such as disease. Murray apparently checked out the report. The following year he replied, noting there was considerable browning of white pine and poplars in the Wanapitae Lake, Stinson Dam, Aubrey Falls, and French River areas around Sudbury. The sulphur fumes arbitrator also seems to have had no doubts about the source of the problem. The browning, Murray noted, was “likely due in part, at least, to sulphur injury.”12

At Murray’s request, Haddow conducted an investigation, one employing both aircraft and ground surveys. His observations clearly troubled him. Flying over the Temagami Forest Reserve north and west of the lake of the same name, he found “considerable browning of white pine.” The Temagami area lies northeast (and thus, much of the time, downwind) of the smelters outside Sudbury. Closer to Sudbury, around Lake Wanapitei, he found more severe browning, as well as dying trees.13 Haddow reported on his fieldwork both to federal government scientists in Ottawa and to his colleagues in the Ontario government at Queen’s Park. The science was a bit rudimentary but the policy message was clear. To paraphrase: “Toronto, we have a problem.”

The department’s concerns were heightened by the fact that the Temagami area was not just another stand of trees. In 1901, the Ontario government had created the Temagami Forest Reserve, which began just north of Lake Wanapitei near Sudbury and extended on the east to Lake Temagami. This was not a park to be preserved, but an area to be forested in a sustainable manner. In 1903 it had been enlarged considerably, taking in more forests to the west. Even when originally set aside in 1901, the Temagami Reserve held “the largest body of pine timber in Ontario still in the hands of the Crown” (Hodgins and Bendickson, 1978, quoting Aubrey White). Although parts of the reserve were cut at non-sustainable rates over the next few decades, it remained what the Toronto newspaper, The Globe, referred to as “one of the finest timber districts of the Province … having an abundance of white and red pine in virgin forest.”14 The area was also home to the Bear Island Ojibway and prime wilderness vacation country for fishers, canoeists, cottagers and others.

Haddow sought assistance from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in August 1938. As he told the NRC scientists, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests was “greatly concerned, not merely over the damage done to date, but over the possibility that very valuable timber limits, including considerable virgin forest, may be destroyed, and [that] this whole area may be rendered permanently unsuitable for forest growth.”15 The department, he indicated, “was anxious to take action in the near future.”

The president of the National Research Council offered his institution’s help to conduct further studies. Its scientists suggested a varied approach, including the monitoring of air concentrations through portable SO^sub 2^ sampling devices carried by aircraft, the analysis of conifer needles to provide a “history” of fumigations, and studies of tree rings to determine growth patterns both inside and outside the possibly affected areas. (All these procedures had been employed by NRC scientists in their investigations of the pollution problems from the Trail smelter.)

This meeting was not the first involvement of federal scientists in Sudbury environmental problems. Nor was Haddow’s work the first investigation by the provincial government. In 1917 W.A. McCubbin of the Dominion Experimental Farms had discovered what he termed “smelter injury” to trees in the Sudbury area. McCubbin concluded smelter fumes had damaged white pines, larch, poplar, jack pine and spruce. Between 1918 and 1920, further studies of evident damage to the white pines of the Lake Temagami area had been done by J.H. Faull of the University of Toronto. His results were less definitive than McCubbin’s as to the cause of the problems.16 Little seems to have come of these early initiatives.

The 1930s field observations by Haddow and Murray raised a major question: How far from the sources of SO^sub 2^ could forests be damaged? Many scientists and government officials of the day assumed, in the absence of solid evidence, that the damage to trees and other vegetation could not extend beyond 30 kilometres or so, given the atmospheric dispersion of the air pollutants they assumed would take place. (To some extent, these views were based on rather superficial observations from before 1930, when taller smokestacks were yet to be used.) Thus it was often assumed that any forest damage farther away from even a very large source of SO^sub 2^ must necessarily be caused by disease or other natural factors. By 1938, however, Haddow was clearly beginning to doubt that assumption. He pointed out that Murray, as the fumes arbitrator, was compensating farmers for SO^sub 2^ damage as far as 50 kilometres from the smelters. Haddow hypothesized that the fumes could reach and damage forests as well as crops at such distances, or more.17

It is not clear what ensued in the short term from all the early studies. The Lands and Forests investigations continued into the early 1940s. Their findings would have done nothing to discourage Haddow’s hunch. Daily SO^sub 2^ reports were made by staff of all of the department’s forest fire lookout towers within a 100 mile radius of the smelters. These observers, for whom clear conditions were of some importance, reported the occurrence and the duration of smelter smoke and also those times when they smelled or tasted SO^sub 2^ fumes. Every year from 1939 to 1944 all the towers within 50 miles of Cooper Cliff detected sulphur smoke at some point during the growing season. During 1944, for example, every tower within 35 miles reported incidents of sulphur fumes, as did almost all of those within 50 miles. Four of the eight towers between 55 and 60 miles away and four of the seven towers located 70 to 80 miles away similarly reported smelling sulphur smoke. Moreover, and perhaps more surprising, three of the nine towers between 85 and 115 miles away detected the smell of sulphur smoke in 1944. Most incidents lasted for two hours or more. The towers reporting SO^sub 2^ generally lay to the northeast of Sudbury; those west and northwest tended to be freer of fumes. Extensive smelter smoke was seen filling the distant Lake Temagami basin in July and again in October 1944 by officials touring the area, as well as by others based there. The smoke plumes were so obvious they could be followed easily by aircraft all the way from Sudbury. On occasions plumes were traced beyond the Temagami area to Lake Timiskaming and the Montreal River on the boundary with Quebec.

These observations were a cause of concern not only for Lands and Forests but also for the smelter companies, albeit perhaps for different reasons. The companies had likely been informed about the suspicious problems in the forests by Murray, who worked closely with them. A few months after Haddow visited the National Research Council, Inco representatives came calling, as well. Like him, they came seeking the expertise of the Council’s scientists. While they were certainly not willing to admit responsibility for all the injured trees in the whole Sudbury region, their preliminary surveys seemed to corroborate Haddow’s findings about the damage and his hunch that SO^sub 2^ was partly to blame. Inco later sent vegetation samples to Ottawa for analysis and carried out its own conifer needle analyses.18

The Sudbury Sulphur Fumes Committee

In 1944 Lands and Forests acted again. Deputy Minister Frank A. MacDougall and his colleagues remained in no doubt there was a problem in the Sudbury woods, and with the white pine stands in particular. They faced a political problem, as well as an environmental one. Injury to trees on Crown land was a matter that fell under their departmental mission. On the other hand, the suspected culprits, the smelters, were very much the exclusive responsibility of the Department of Mines. It was a fair assumption that this department was not keen to see the smelters implicated for damaging the Sudbury forests, and even less keen to have expensive pollution controls imposed on the plants.

MacDougall called a meeting for 20 April 1944 in his department’s Toronto boardroom.19 He invited representatives of the Mines Department, including H.C. Rickaby, its deputy minister. Bob Murray, the sulphur fumes arbitrator, an employee of the Mines Department, came down from his office in Sudbury for the meeting. Also invited were representatives from the mining and smelting firms, the International Nickel Company (Inco) and Falconbridge Nickel Mines.

The meeting turned into an all-day affair. The assembled participants not surprisingly could not agree on the seriousness or source of the problem in the forests. They could and did ultimately agree it merited some investigation. As framed by MacDougall, the basic purposes of the study were threefold.20 First, it would “determine if sulphur dioxide or other smelter gases were causing injury to Provincial forests in the Sudbury region.” Second, if damage were occurring, then the study would define the area being damaged. Third, assuming damage was found, it would suggest what measures might be taken to remedy the problem.

Given the Trail case, and various studies in the United States, the damaging effects of smelter sulphur emissions were well known. So too were the possible remedies. These ranged from collection of the SO^sub 2^ exhaust gases for conversion to elemental sulphur or for use in the manufacture of sulphuric acid or fertilizer, to the greater dilution of emitted gases through the use of high smokestacks, to varying the operation of the smelters according to wind and weather conditions. (As most if not all of the study participants were aware, all three of these approaches had been applied to the Cominco smelter in Trail.)

As the investigation began, officials from the Department of Mines refrained from an openly contrary position to the concerns of their counterparts from Lands and Forests. Murray had expressed his personal opinion that damage to the Sudbury area forests was occurring. He also was evidently of the view that SO^sub 2^ emissons were at least partly to blame. He suggested the smelter companies would go along with an investigation and with any remedies suggested. This proved to be a decidedly optimistic view and, ultimately, a quite erroneous one. At some of the earliest meetings of the Sudbury investigation in 1945, even before the scientific studies began in earnest, Inco representatives strongly objected to all potential remedies that might be applied to the smelters, even the mildest. They argued that the sort of operational-control regime imposed on Cominco “could not be enforced at Sudbury without interfering seriously with the operation” and without “causing serious economic loss.”21 Inco would, in the coming decades, develop a habit of overstating the problems involved in reducing emissions. None the less, the sheer size of the Inco operation in the Sudbury area, coupled with some of its technical aspects, lent some truth to the claim that Inco’s situation was on a different scale than Cominco’s. The amount of SO^sub 2^ produced, and thus to be treated in some manner, was much larger than that from the Trail plant. The argument, accepted by many Ontario officials, was that the greater the emissions the more difficult it would be to effect remedies. There were, apparently, no economies of scale to be had. Arguably, of course, the greater the emissions, the more efficient the sulphur recovery process could be. Moreover, the greater the emissions the more important and more serious they were environmentally, and thus the greater the need to reduce those emissions. These arguments were not afforded equal time, however.

The alternative Inco suggested to the various emission-reduction or damage-reduction approaches was a status-quo, minimalist option. The company anticipated the demand for nickel would decrease after the end of the war. With production cuts would come reductions in SO^sub 2^ emissions. The governments should thus leave Inco alone, be patient and wait for a better day. Judging by what followed, or more correctly, what did not follow, this seems to have been a deal the province of Ontario could not refuse. As it turned out, international demand for nickel did dip somewhat in 1946 but recovered quickly. Sudbury production rose again in the late 1940s and increased through the 1950s.

Given that Haddow and Murray, the in-house experts, agreed there was forest damage over a large area, the first two questions in the committee’s three-question mandate were, even at this preliminary stage, not very contentious. The third question was clearly another matter. Almost from its creation the sulphur fumes committee was constrained from pursuing the question of remedies, the most important part of its mandate. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the committee was to prove exceedingly long-lived.

The Sulphur Fumes Committee at Work What the sulphur fumes committee clearly could do was to compile stronger evidence of serious and extensive damage. It looked outside for scientific advice and assistance, and found an abundance of expertise in the federal government, a result of the recently completed Trail smelter investigation. One of the experts was A.W. McCallum, the Dominion Forest pathologist, who had, by coincidence, assisted Faull with his Sudbury studies prior to 1922. Two others, F.E. Lathe and Dr. Morris Katz, were National Research Council scientists. Katz, an engineer by training, was becoming a recognized expert on air pollution and SO^sub 2^ emissions in particular. All three were Trail investigation veterans. Although McCallum, Katz and their Canadian scientific colleagues had disputed some of the American claims for damages in the Trail case, they did ultimately conclude smelter fumes were having a significant effect on farms and trees in the Columbia River basin south of the international boundary and downwind from the Trail smelter (National Research Council, 1939).

The committee sought further assistance from the University of Toronto and from the Meteorological Service of Canada, the latter to measure sulphur concentrations in the air. Also added to the committee’s membership later were a young forest scientist, Samuel Linzon, and his boss, L.T. White, of the Forest Pathology Laboratory, in Maple, Ontario.

Lands and Forests received preliminary evidence of a relationship between sulphur emissions and tree damage from the National Research Council. F.E. Lathe did a simple paired comparison of the annual rings of small samples of trees growing in two different Ontario townships.22 One group was from Parkin township, about 40 kilometres north of Sudbury; the other, chosen as a control group, was from an area about 110 miles west of Sudbury. Lathe plotted the actual and relative growth of the trees by year against total nickel production in Canada. Lacking direct data on emissions, Lathe used the latter measure as an index of sulphur emitted. He found no evidence of damage from sulphur fumes before 1934, but the decline in tree growth after 1934 was related to increased nickel production, and presumably due to increased sulphur emissions. It is perhaps significant that the new 500-foot smokestacks at Inco’s plant came into operation in the 1930s; these likely had the effect of reducing pollution in the immediate area of the ore-roasting process and distributing more of the emitted sulphur compounds into more distant townships such as Parkin.

McCallum undertook a preliminary survey of the forests in August 1944 and returned in the summer of 1945. His research seems to have consisted largely of personal observation in various parts of the Sudbury region, a sort of scientific walk-about. He apparently collected no foliage samples and did no laboratory analysis.23 McCallum seems to have been persuaded from the outset that SO^sub 2^ was not a key factor. Like Faull, with whom he had worked, he pointed instead to the likelihood of a disease called white pine needle blight. Although he acknowledged it was not possible to distinguish visually between the blight and SO^sub 2^ damage (a difficulty that was recognized at the time), McCallum nevertheless felt confident in finding that the blight was “wide-spread” in the Sudbury area. He reported he “had no doubt but that the reports of injury [around Sudbury] have been largely, if not altogether, based on the occurrence of needle blight rather than that of sulphur dioxide injury.”24

Another outside expert, Professor George Duff of the University of Toronto Botany Department, was sure disease could not explain the extent of the damage. He was much more inclined to blame the smelter emissions. Duff’s observations and suspicions were reported to a committee meeting in late 1946. They received some confirmation from the results of Katz’s atmospheric monitoring. Katz told the committee that areas in which forest damage seemed to be evident were receiving “frequent and rather prolonged visitations” of sulphur dioxide in concentrations of up to 0.40 parts per million (ppm).

The committee initially focused its investigations on three elements of the situation in the Sudbury region: the concentration of fumes, especially of sulphur dioxide, at various distances from the smelters; meteorological information for the region, in particular the prevailing wind directions; and conditions in the forests. In short, the investigation looked at what are now called source-receptor relationships – the concentrations and transport of the SO^sub 2^ and its effect on the forests. Sulphur dioxide levels were monitored each year during the growing season, from May or June to November by four (and after 1946, seven) automatic recorders, located at varying distances around the smelters. One of these recorders was located on Bear Island in Lake Temagami. Sampling was also done by a portable ground sampling unit (mounted on a truck or car) and by airplane (at first, a 20-year old DeHaviland Moth). The research was carefully planned but somewhat inhibited by the fact that the scientists in Sudbury had no precise data on actual emissions of SO^sub 2^ and other pollutants from the smelters. (In contrast, Cominco had provided precise annual emission data to the scientists investigating the Trail case.) Some “test plots” of young trees were also planted for use in controlled fumigation studies.

During the first year, the Sudbury monitoring incorporated the observations from forest fire lookout towers and forest rangers in the Sudbury region. The forest fire station staff, previously charged by Lands and Forests with reporting sensory evidence of smelter fumes, were now asked to complete a “daily sulphur smoke report” and operate a simple analytical device. Their results surprised some committee members and certainly unsettled others. While evidence of fumes close to the smelters was a given, it was not generally expected that the environmental “reach” of smelters extended, for example, to Lake Temagami. The measurements suggested the possibility of an affected area much larger than hitherto expected. The fire stations’ and rangers’ observations were dismissed by sceptics on the sulphur fumes committee, particularly the Inco representatives. The observations were branded as unscientific and the product of insufficiently rigorous methods.

Regular monitoring began in 1945 and quickly produced dramatic results. Most of the maximum readings for particular periods showed SO2 levels of around 0.30 ppm, but some reached 1.0 ppm. Scientists at the time and for decades afterwards generally believed that ambient concentrations of more than 0.25 to 0.30 ppm were needed to cause tree and vegetation damage. While concentrations of this magnitude were normally recorded less than five or six per cent of the time the monitors were operating, most scientists also agreed that vegetation damage could occur with merely one such incident. They seem to have been less sure about the cumulative effects of long-term, low-level exposure.25

The concentrations of fumes in some areas closer to the smelters were so high that they posed a particular problem for the scientists. One researcher for the federal government’s Meteorological Service worried that “due to the large volume of sulphur dioxide and other gases being emitted from the stacks the corrosion to our meteorological instruments and the supporting cable will be extremely rapid necessitating frequent repair.”26

Haddow and Murray began collecting foliage samples in 1944 and continued in 1945, 1946 and 1947. They found “high” sulphur levels in some tree species from 20 to 40 miles in a north-easterly direction from Sudbury. By 50 to 60 miles out, the values were mostly “normal.” Some white pine samples taken at considerable distance from the smelters, however, yielded unexpectedly high levels of sulphur. Certain of the scientists tended to doubt these measurements and suggested that white pine might be a “poor indicator” (that is, an unreliable index) of SO^sub 2^ occurrence-a view certainly at variance with accepted wisdom and later research.27

It is quite possible some of these results were valid. If so, then rejecting these unexpectedly high readings was an example of assumptions triumphing over scientific evidence, or of researchers rushing to accept a false null hypothesis.

The sulphur fumes committee’s annual reports for 1945 and 1946 were long on procedures and arrangements and short on results. They offered no remedies. Two procedural conclusions did emerge. At least some of the participants had come to believe a larger, more comprehensive investigation was needed, particularly with respect to atmospheric monitoring. The committee recognized that “many questions involved in the investigation were of general, rather than local significance.” A greater contribution was thus sought from the federal government. At the committee’s meeting in 1948, the federal representatives indicated the project would have to be more formal to earn their continued cooperation and a more extensive contribution from their organizations. That is, they would continue their involvement and provide needed resources and expertise only if the committee were to be established by a provincial order-in-council or a minister’s letter.

It is not clear why this demand was made. The motive may perhaps have been simply administrative. Informal arrangements between government bureaucracies and other agencies can be supported by incidental funding for limited periods, but not normally for extended periods, and usually can only be supported if they do not constitute a major drain on resources. The NRC’s level of involvement may have come to surpass what it felt could be offered on an informal basis. At stake is administrative tidiness, and ultimately, responsible government. Then again, the demand may have had a more political motive. Some of the federal officials participating, or represented at the table, may have wanted to establish a more formal structure in the hope that the committee might be less likely delayed in, or sidetracked from, accomplishing its mission.

There is no doubt the idea of formalizing the investigation was greeted unsympathetically by the smelter companies. As a memo to the deputy minister later recalled, the “accredited representatives of the [companies] opposed this change in the status of the Committee.”28 The companies seem to have been willing to tolerate some informal studies, although in fact they offered little technical support for those studies. A more formal investigation, however, was quite another matter. Such may well have sounded to the companies like the beginning of a serious process, akin to the Trail case. And the Trail investigation had led to Ottawa imposing emission controls on the Cominco smelter.

The Sulphur Fumes Committee Reports

The work of the committee was temporarily suspended for much of 1949 and early 1950, perhaps to allow for some reconciliation of views. Lands and Forests called together the technical experts from the two levels of government: Murray, Katz, Duff and McCallum, plus R.N. Johnston, chief of the research division of Lands and Forests. With Murray serving as chair, they discussed the situation and came up with a set of findings and recommendations. They provided a report on the scientific findings to date as well as a useful summary of the policy situation.29

“The problem of atmospheric pollution is one of the most important confronting industry, agriculture, forestry and human welfare,” they observed. This was neither a unique problem nor one faced only in Canada. “The injurious effects of excessive air pollution have been recognized and efforts are being made in the United States and elsewhere to investigate, abate and control them.” The problem of sulphur dioxide pollution from the Ontario smelters, they argued, “should be viewed in this light.” Indeed, it was a harbinger of problems to come. Rather presciently, the report noted that “the pollution conditions existing in the Sudbury area may eventually apply to a much larger area, with further development of mining operations in the Laurentian Shield section of the Province.”

The report found, in short, that the problem of forest damage was serious, that the investigation should go on and that some sort of remedial action should be contemplated, although controls should not be imposed irrespective of economic realities. The combination of environmental science, economics and politics in the technical committee’s work is particularly revealing.

The scientific evidence of smelter fume damage was very strong. Within about 20 miles of the smelters, SO^sub 2^ incidents occurred 15 times per month, or every other day. Between 20 miles and 40 miles, they occurred almost as often – on average, 13 times a month. Heavy fumigations (when sulphur dioxide exceeded 0.50 parts per million) occurred every third day within the first zone, and every other month during 1947 at one station in the second zone. For the inner ring of 20 miles in diameter, maximum concentrations of sulphur dioxide ranged from 1.0 to 2.5 ppm. Within the outer ring, the range was 0.25 to 0.75 ppm. Ambient sulphur dioxide was routinely detected up to 75 or 80 miles away. As a result, there had been “acute and chronic damage to forest species and ground cover” in the area up to 40 miles from the smelters. While vegetation damage beyond 40 miles had not been firmly established, the committee regarded it as “a zone of hazard” that merited further study.

The committee placed the air-quality figures in a stark context. The terms of the Trail smelter arbitration had prohibited a ground concentration of more than 0.30 parts per million of SO^sub 2^ at a distance of five miles from the smelter for more than two consecutive 20-minute periods during the growing season. When this level was reached, the Cominco plant was required to cut back production or shut down. The Sudbury smelters were producing maximum atmospheric SO^sub 2^ concentrations roughly three to eight times the level at which an international agreement required the Trail smelter to reduce its emissions. And the high concentrations in Sudbury were being commonly monitored at much greater distances from the smelters.

With these findings, the technical committee was providing a strong affirmative answer to the first and second questions of the mandate given to the sulphur fumes committee in 1944 by the deputy minister of Lands and Forests. There was damage, and it was quite extensive.

As to the third question, concerning remedial options, the technical group was both pointed and at the same time reserved. It concluded sweepingly that “the continued emission of sulphur dioxide from the Sudbury basin smelters is considered to be against the public interest.” The SO^sub 2^ emissions not only created “a source of damage of unknown mangitude [sic] to property and to the forests of the Sudbury region,” but also represented wastage of potentially marketable sulphur. The group noted that this “sulphur … if recovered, would constitute a valuable national resource.” On this point it seems the committee was influenced by a report from the Ontario Research Foundation (Ontario Research Foundation, 1947).

At the same time, Murray and his colleagues tried to be both reasonable and reassuring to the companies. They noted the hurdles facing the smelters: “the magnitude of the problem; the possible necessity for costly modifications in existing meturallical [sic] processes if the emission of smelter fumes were [sic] to be abated or controlled; the necessity for improved techniques and the difficulty of establishing new markets for new products.” Despite the environmental threat to the northern forests, these factors had to be taken into account. “It is realized,” noted the group, “that the whole problem is one of economics.” (That judgement was disputable, as the problem was at least in part political. More correctly stated, if one was looking solely for market solutions to the problem of the Sudbury area emissions, then the constraints were largely economic.)

While these constraints should be taken seriously, they were not, in the subcommittee’s view, reason to abandon the investigation. “Even in the face of existing technical difficulties and marketing problems,” the report observed, the situation was not “hopeless,” and there was no reason for “a defeatist attitude in this phase.” Investigations often lead to the elimination of technical “impossibilities,” and “many new requirements for so-called waste products are daily finding uses in civilization’s expanding economy to warrant any finality with respect to possible uses for smelter fumes derivatives.” In particular, the group believed the market potential for waste sulphur and sulphur by-products was improving. Declining American reserves of elemental sulphur could open up export possibilities.

The consideration of remedies went beyond reliance on market forces for sulphur and sulphur products. Although the Ontario government did not seriously consider imposing emission restrictions or other similar regulatory measures on the province’s smelters for another two decades, the committee and its members discussed steps that might be taken. F.E. Lathe of the National Research Council put into writing a view many of those on the committee seemed to share. He cautioned his provincial counterparts against raising publicly the matter of “the hazards arising from sulphur dioxide…. Such action would probably antagonize the companies affected.” It would be best “to approach these companies privately, to point out to them the hazards in question, and arrange for their cooperation in any studies which might be carried out. There need then be no publicity in the matter, and the desired result could probably be obtained through cooperation between the department and industry.”30 Lathe may or may not have appreciated that this sort of behind-closed-doors, non-confrontational approach was precisely what the committee had been following for five or six years – without “the desired result.”

As potent as the scientific evidence might appear, the technical committee apparently did not regard it as sufficient. To move closer to achieving a solution, and perhaps to place more pressure on the companies and government, Murray and his colleagues proposed a continued scientific offensive with three prongs. First, they would analyze the spread and deposition of sulphur dioxide based on collection of meteorological data, chemical data and biological data. “In this connection,” they observed, “it is essential to obtain data from the smelting companies on the mass rate of the emission of sulphur during the growing season.” They added a pointed warning: “Unless this is done, no precise scientific statement can be secured.” Second, the impact of sulphur dioxide on the northern Ontario forests must be assessed and “lethal levels” of pollution determined. Third, possible remedial measures by the smelters should be studied fully “in order to reduce significantly the present emission of sulphur from stacks in the Coppercliff [sic], Coniston, and Falconbridge smelting areas.”

The group recommended further investigations be carried out on a somewhat larger scale. An annual budget of approximately $50,000 was considered essential. (The sulphur fumes committee had spent about $53,000 in total over the previous four years.31) The technical experts did not envisage a short study. “Major results” might take another five years.

Despite opposition from the smelter companies, and perhaps from parts of the provincial government, MacDougall and the Department of Lands and Forests pressed successfully to continue their investigation. While the views of the Department of Mines are less well documented, it seems reasonable to suspect it would not abandon its considerable efforts over the years to protect the smelters from intrusions. The department seemed willing to allow the scientific studies to continue, as long as only studies were involved and as long as no sulphur dioxide control measures were being forced on the smelters. And perhaps as long as Murray, a Mines Department employee, was chairing the committee. The federal scientists and officials also got their way, at least in the sense that the requested provincial authority was forthcoming. In early January 1951 the respective Ontario ministers recommended to the cabinet that the sulphur fumes committee be formally established to investigate the impact of fumes on “forest growth” in the Sudbury basin.32

Despite their earlier threats, Inco and Falconbridge remained on the committee. But they continued to offer little active assistance beyond grudgingly paying half the cost of the investigation. In particular, they never provided the data on emissions from their smelters requested by the committee. The Ontario government was still looking for and still politely requesting these data decades later. The companies probably calculated that their interests were better served by participating on the inside than by watching the ongoing investigations from the outside.

Behind the facade of cooperation there may well have been an implicit or explicit side deal of sorts. The companies may have been offered assurances at the political level that the provincial government would make no unreasonable demands with respect to reducing sulphur emissions. Certainly the technical committee made a valiant effort to show its awareness of the obstacles the smelter companies faced and to indicate no demands for reductions would be made in the short term. Indeed, government-imposed pollution controls lay not in the offing but in the much-longer-term future.

Almost curtailed in 1948 and 1949, the committee’s work again came under challenge about three years later. Once again, it was resuscitated. As Morris Katz told his provincial colleagues, production and emissions at the Inco plant were increasing, making the investigation all the more important. The work was far from complete. The present investigations, he said, “are modest in scope and consist of the bare minimum of effort considered essential.”” The Sudbury forest investigations continued – saved from abolition but not from near oblivion.

When re-energizing the committee in late 1950, Deputy Minister MacDougall seems to have been mindful of the technical group’s call for another five years of scientific studies. He made the plea that “the investigation should be scheduled to produce significant results, if possible conclusive results, in a reasonably short period.”34 Despite this plea, the committee was not to be short-lived. It went on working in slightly modified form for decades, and would never produce what a succession of provincial governments at least found to be sufficiently conclusive results on which to take action.

Linzon Studies, 1949-1970s

Dr. Samuel Linzon, an Ontario government scientist and a member of the sulphur dioxide committee, had begun his own research in the Sudbury region in the 1950s. A key impetus for his work was the investigation initiated in the 1940s by Lands and Forests. He continued to investigate forest damage through the 1960s and 1970s. A graduate of the University of Toronto forestry school, Linzon became interested in the problem of pine needle blight while doing a master’s degree. He had studied with Professor Duff of the Botany Department in Toronto and then worked with L.T. White of the Forest Pathology Laboratory in Maple, Ontario (White, 1953). He was destined to become an internationally recognized expert on forest pathology.

In his graduate study, Linzon had marked out 43 one-acre plots in the forests northeast of Sudbury roughly in a line with the prevailing winds from the smelters (Linzon, 1958). From 1949 to 1953 he meticulously examined 7,000 white pine trees within these plots. Most of them were in the stage where trees normally experience vigorous growth, from 50 to 90 years of age. Linzon carefully observed the condition of the bark and other parts of the trees, measured their diameters and took bore samples to measure tree rings. By the time he was completing his field investigation the results from the permanent sulphur dioxide monitoring network that had been established in the Sudbury area were available to him. Compiling the two sets of information, Linzon found a correlation between distance from the smelters, SO^sub 2^ concentrations in the atmosphere, and forest damage. The closer one was to the epicentre of Sudbury, the higher were the atmospheric SO^sub 2^ concentrations and the greater the damage to the white pines. The farther one moved from the smelters, the lower the SO^sub 2^ concentrations and the less the damage to the trees.

Linzon concluded that smelter fumes had damaged the white pines in the Sudbury area. The pollution had restricted their growth and increased their mortality. Evident damage stretched about 25 miles from Sudbury. Beyond that perimeter, the forests improved “remarkably.” Linzon suggested, “Sulphur dioxide from the Sudbury smelters has no appreciable influence on vegetation at these greater distances.” Linzon’s findings were more conservative than those of the sulphur fumes committee report of 1950. The committee had identified evident forest damage up to a 40-mile perimeter from the smelters and had suggested the likelihood of damage beyond that distance. In other respects, though, the two sets of findings were highly supportive. Together this careful research laid to rest the earlier claims by Faull and especially by McCallum that the forest damage in the Sudbury area was due entirely to needle disease rather than to sulphur dioxide.

Linzon also observed that fewer pines in the areas nearest to the smelters displayed normal tree ailments. Heart rot, blister rust and stem deformities were rel-atively uncommon in the areas receiving the heaviest deposits of sulphur dioxide. The high sulphur levels seemed to inhibit the development of bacteria and fungi. Moreover, fallen trees did not decay at the usual rate. “Trees that have been dead for many years are still in good condition,” he reported (Linzon 1978, 140). The trees were, in effect, pickled by the heavy doses of sulphur dioxide they had received. It is an understood principle of forest ecosystems that rotting trees provide needed nourishment to the next-generation forest. Pollution of the Sudbury forests disrupted this natural process. The high SO^sub 2^ concentrations killed trees prematurely, then retarded the process of regrowth and regeneration.

In the later 1950s and 1960s, building on his earlier work, Linzon studied 6,000 white pine trees on 42 sample plots over ten years (Linzon 1966; Linzon, 1972). The work confirmed his earlier findings. Eastern white pines up to 25 miles from Sudbury were being “extensively damaged” by sulphur fumes. The area of severe damage was about 700 square miles around the smelters in a southwest to northeast ellipse. The surrounding 1,600 square miles were “subject to little or no damage.” About three times as many trees in the “inner fume zone” died annually as in a control area in another part of Ontario, remote from sources of SO^sub 2^. The Sudbury “kill” zone exhibited an overall net annual negative growth. (A greater volume of trees died in a given time period than was replaced.) The strong correlation discovered earlier between distance from the smelters, SO^sub 2^ concentrations and damage also held.

In another study, published in 1971, he went beyond forest pathology to develop an economic estimate of the damage to the Sudbury area forests (Linzon, 1971). He estimated the total loss of white pine to be the equivalent of almost one million board feet per year. The economic cost to the forest industry of the damage to mature white pines in the inner zone at current market values was about $117,000 annually in 1970 dollars. There was also an opportunity cost to the government of Ontario of $15,000 annually in stumpage fees.

These cost estimates, it should be noted, represent an understatement of the overall damage to the Sudbury area forests. Eastern white pine, while a very valuable species, is not a common one. It represented only about seven to eight per cent of the total productive forest in the Sudbury area. The most common species in the region are poplar and jack pine, which are also highly susceptible to SO^sub 2^ injury. Linzon did not try to estimate the economic costs of the environmental damage to these species, as he had not systematically studied either the poplar or jack pine. He also did not attempt to calculate the economic losses from the white pine located in the zones surrounding the most affected area. Nor did he estimate the future losses from young trees that never matured. Finally, Linzon’s calculations did not take into account any loss of trees to forest fires. It was an accepted fact that the greater incidence of fires in the region was due to the dry condition of the forests, which was, in turn, a result of SO^sub 2^ deposition. It is reasonable to conclude that the full economic costs of the Sudbury forest ecocide were actually many times the figures arrived at by Linzon. (Clearly, Linzon’s analysis also did not take into account the damage being done by the smelter emissions to the aquatic ecosystems of the Sudbury area, including the fisheries.)

Linzon’s research in the Sudbury region was a departure from past practice in at least one sense. In contrast to the scientific work of the sulphur fumes committee, some of it was published in scientific and professional journals.

Sulphur Fumes Arbitrator Reports

In August 1972, the magazine Sudbury Life published extensive excerpts of an internal Ontario government report on the effects of sulphur fumes on the region’s forests (Erickson, 1973). A copy of the semi-confidential report ended up in the hands of Elie Martel, the New Democratic Party member of the Ontario legislature for Sudbury. He read portions of it in the legislature, and almost immediately copies were provided by the government to all members. A copy seems to have been leaked to the magazine in Martel’s riding.

The document was the 1971 edition of a series of annual reports written by government officials in the sulphur fumes arbitration office in Sudbury. The nature of these reports can be gleaned from comparing the 1971 version with the one produced on conditions in 1968. Blandly entitled “Sulphur Dioxide Levels and Resultant Injury to Vegetation in the Sudbury Area during the 1968 Season,” the report was written by Bruce Dreisinger, who had replaced R.H. Murray as the Ontario government’s official Sulphur Fumes Arbitrator, and Peter McGovern, who worked for the Department of Mines in Sudbury (Dreisinger and McGovern, 1969).

In the style of coroners, Dreisinger and McGovern carefully but calmly and clinically documented the ongoing destruction of the Sudbury region’s forests. Using the extensive permanent network of ten monitoring stations set up around the Sudbury area, they recorded almost 700 “fumigation incidents” during 1968. Each incident was systematically measured at one or more of the stations. During 50 of these incidents the monitors recorded levels thought to be injurious to vegetation. Many of the readings significantly exceeded this critical threshold. An area of almost 1,400 square miles was subjected to two or more serious fumigations during the course of the previous year. The report noted that one such incident annually can cause damage. During one particularly serious fumigation incident SO^sub 2^ levels reached five times the level that caused injury.

Dreisinger and McGovern estimated that roughly 3,800 square miles of northern Ontario were suffering visible vegetation injury from the sulphur emissions (see map). This was a much larger area than that estimated by Linzon for damage to eastern white pines. Continuing Linzon’s work, they gave particular attention to white pine stands in the Lake Penage area, 20 to 30 miles southwest of Sudbury towards the La Cloche Mountains. In 1968 Dreisinger and McGovern found that white pines there had been damaged for the fourth year in a row. The researchers had tagged 100 white pine trees in the area in October 1966. When they returned in October 1968, 21 trees had died – almost one in four of the tagged trees. Seven were put on the critical list. The general mortality rate of white pines in the area was calculated to be about 28%. The Sudbury area forest was not a diminishing resource. It was a dying forest. This was a case of forest ecocide.

Dreisinger and McGovern were able to rule out natural causes, such as fungal pathogens and insects. The cause seemed clear. The levels of sulphur in the area’s vegetation at any point were highly correlated to ambient levels of sulphur dioxide in the air, as measured by the sampling stations. (This analysis corroborated Linzon’s results.) The area’s main source of SO^sub 2^, of course, was still the nickel smelters. Under the impact of their considerable emissions, the forest was unable to replenish itself at the rate at which trees were falling victim to the pollution. (These findings also corroborated those of Linzon and earlier studies.)

Were these particular trees unusually damaged? White pines were known to be sensitive to sulphur dioxide, but they were not the only species affected. Nor did their sensitivity lessen the importance of what was happening in the Penage area. The area did not receive the brunt of the smelter emissions. Given the prevailing south-west to north-east winds of the Sudbury summer, Penage is normally upwind, not downwind, from the smokestacks. The area thus receives much less sulphur dioxide during the growing season than do other areas, especially those northeast of the smelters. In short, the damage to the white pines around Lake Penage was probably not unusual for the broader region. Indeed, it was almost certainly an understatement of the overall situation. Forest injury occurring elsewhere in the Sudbury area was likely of even greater severity. Once again, an official study was finding serious damage but understating the environmental effects.

Subsequent annual reports from the sulphur fumes arbitrator’s office contained the same alarming message. The mortality of white pines in the selected plot near Lake Penage nearly doubled in the next three years. The 21 dead trees in 1968 had become 41 dead trees in 1971 (McGovern and Balsillie, 1972). All the 100 tagged pine trees in the plot showed some damage. During 1970 there were 614 fumigation incidents, and 64 of these were at the level known to be injurious to vegetation or greater (Dreisinger and McGovern, 1971). The 1971 report said the geographic area around the smelters subjected to at least one potentially injurious fumigation had increased from about 1,400 square miles in 1969 to more than 1,700 in 1970 and then increased again to 1,950 square miles in 1971.

In 1972, Peter McGovern and his new colleague, a young scientist named David Balsillie, found that the area receiving at least one serious fumigation had decreased to about 1200 square miles (McGovern and Balsillie, 1973). The reduction in the affected area was probably due to considerably reduced emissions from the smelters. These reductions, in turn, were not the result of government policy but rather a consequence of significant plant shut-down periods for Inco and Falconbridge.

McGovern and Balsillie reported “extremely high levels” of heavy metals (as well as sulphur) close to the smelters. Their work corroborated findings of a decade earlier by Eville Gorham and A.G. Gordon (1960; 1960). The effect of these heavy metals on vegetation, including trees, had not been investigated previously. McGovern and Balsillie also found very high levels of sulphur in the winter snow across an area of about 1,500 square miles around the smelters. Most of the snow samples registered a pH of 4 to 5, indicating they were highly acidic. The timing of this new government work on snow samples was likely a result of the provincial government’s recent awareness of the snow-sampling work Richard Beamish from the University of Toronto was doing in the La Cloche area (Beamish and Harvey, 1974). The government studies around Sudbury can also, in retrospect, be tied directly to the investigations into “acid rain” the Ontario government conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s – investigations that were more a continuation of those conducted in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s than the government of Ontario ever wanted to acknowledge.

Local readers of the Sudbury Life story on the 1971 “sulphur fumes” report had watched the demise of the white pines. “Large tracts of dead and dying pine” were a common sight around the Temagami Reserve (Bangay, 1973). The local people were also accustomed to what they termed the “Sudbury haze” that would roll in, especially during the summers. Private pilots often traced the plumes of smoke back to the smelters. (These observations were an echo of area foresters’ reports in the late 1930s and early 1940s.) The conventional wisdom in the Sudbury-Temagami region, amongst laypersons as well as experts, was that the damage came from smelter fumes. There were repeated complaints and public protests over the years.

Sudbury Life readers might have been surprised by the implicit admission in the excerpts of the 1971 study that their provincial government had been undertaking scientific investigations and reporting on the damage for some time. The reports were part of a series that had its origins in the Sudbury sulphur fumes committee created in the 1940s.

The Sulphur Dioxide Committee Revisited

The committee was still meeting in the 1970s, 30 years after its creation. The 1970s committee, formally entitled the Special Sulphur Dioxide Committee, looked very much like the 1940s original. It had precisely the same three-question mandate given in 1944 by the deputy minister of Lands and Forests. Although it had been stripped of direct responsibility for conducting scientific investigations, it retained its basic purview and structure, with government and industry representation. It also featured some of the same faces. The sulphur dioxide monitoring stations were still operating around Sudbury and were still collecting the same data. The committee was still considering the data. It was also still considering “possible” damage to the area’s vegetation. Although its focus broadened slightly from a concern with forest damage to include other types of vegetation, the committee did not look at the problem of lake acidification in the Sudbury area – a problem that was recognized both within and outside of government.

The committee’s meeting in 1973 illustrates well how it operated at that time.35 Committee chair P.C. McGovern singled out for especially warm thanks one long-time committee member who was retiring from his job at Inco and leaving the committee.

McGovern provided a brief institutional history. The committee’s mandate was threefold: to determine if SO^sub 2^ fumes were causing damage to forest species in the Sudbury area; to determine, if damage was being done, the areas affected and the extent of the injury; and, if damage was being done, to identify remedies that might be applied. He observed that the same committee had met annually in an informal manner “almost every year since the mid-forties” and acknowledged that the three questions in the committee’s terms of reference remained the same. “Over the years,” he added, “the first two terms have been given a great deal of attention.” He noted that there had been more discussion at recent meetings of the third and most important area, that of remedies.

In fact, there was little real discussion at the meeting. A few of ministry scientists presented results from studies they had conducted over the past year or so. The smelter companies provided short statements on what they had done with respect to sulphur emissions. A few questions were asked, all of a specific and technical nature. For example, the Falconbridge representative described what his company was doing to reduce emissions, then added that its “restoration” program would be planting 12,000 trees around Sudbury. One of the government scientists asked what kind of trees were being planted. “The same as usual – poplars” was the answer. The gathering moved on to the next presentation. And then the meeting adjourned.

The committee did not debate the research results or discuss any new directions the monitoring programs might take. It debated neither science nor control actions. There was no discussion of the sulphur dioxide management measures outlined briefly by the companies. There was no discussion about other measures or control actions that might be taken. There was no obvious effort to develop an answer to the three questions that composed the committee’s mandate.

The committee meeting was an information-sharing exercise. And the members present seemed quite content with that. Communication had replaced the planning of investigations and the search for remedies and policy. More precisely, the committee’s primary purpose seems to have become communication as process rather than the communication of substance. The information shared that morning was public information, almost certainly well known by most in the room before they assembled there. The Sulphur Dioxide Committee, then approaching 30 years of age, had become little more than a forum where the provincial government and industry met and talked to each other. If both sides were comfortable with that situation it was likely because everyone concerned knew what the science was going to show and knew equally well that the committee would not discuss seriously the dangerous, almost forbidden, subject of controls. Why was that so well understood?

Science and Environmental Policy

After many years, the Government of Ontario did issue control orders on both smelter operations in the Sudbury area, against Falconbridge in 1969 and Inco in 1970. These control orders required reductions in the smelters’ emissions of SO2. The relevance of these measures to the focus of this article is limited, however, for two reasons.

First, the rationale behind these control orders had nothing to do with sulphur fume damage to forest or other ecosystems. The orders were based on the poor ambient-air quality in the city of Sudbury and neighbouring communities. Concerns about human health, not concerns about environmental health or forests, drove the decision to take this unprecedented action. Decades of scientific investigations into forest damage played no role whatsoever in the decisions to regulate, finally, the smelter companies. The decision to apply the control orders came only after jurisdiction for air pollution was moved to the provincial Ministry of Health.

Second, the control order on Falconbridge was met after some delay and led to a reduction in its emissions over the 1970s. But the order on Inco did not lead to reductions in emissions at its plant, by far the largest source of SO2 in the Sudbury area – indeed, in all of North America. In response to the control order, Inco erected a 1,250 foot tall “superstack” in 1972. The stack improved Sudbury air quality but spread the emitted SO^sub 2^ further afield. Inco informed the Ontario government in the late 1970s that it could not and would not meet the requirement of the control order to reduce actual emissions.36 The first successful governmental effort to impose reductions in emissions at Inco did not come until the 1980s, when regulations were justified by concerns about damage to fish, lakes and streams and by the perceived need to show the United States that Canada was serious about reducing “acid rain.” Everyone on the SO^sub 2^ committee understood that the committee’s 30-year-old mandate to propose remedies was historical fiction.

The usual and reasonable first response by governments to concerns about a public policy problem is to determine the facts. Environmental policy issues are no exception, as shown by the response when acid rain emerged on the public scene in Ontario and Canada in the late 1970s. Politicians and bureaucrats established extensive and often costly research programs to understand the “new” problem and find solutions. The relevant ministries of the Government of Ontario embarked upon a massive scientific study of the effects of acid rain and possible solutions. It was called the Acid Precipitation in Ontario program (APIOS). The findings from the study fed directly into policy deliberations (MacDonald, 1997).

Studies of Ontario forests from the 1940s to the 1970s led to nothing but more studies. (The major scientific investigations are summarized in Table 1.) Ultimately, decades of investigating forest damage passed rather quietly into history and were forgotten. How quickly and thoroughly they were forgotten can be illustrated with an example from the APIOS era. Among the proposals that found their way into the first APIOS five-year plan was one to initiate a study of the effects of sulphur dioxide emissions on Ontario forests.”

A lack of scientific fact and understanding was not the problem. The facts about the environmental damage to northern Ontario forests were compiled and compiled again. They were compelling, at least to the scientists. But they were never sufficient. The government of Ontario did not move against the smelters until the 1970s and did so for reasons unrelated to the forests. There is no evidence in any of the official government files considered in the course of this research that senior Ontario officials or any Ontario cabinet ever seriously considered taking action against the smelters based on the decades of studies of forest damage. The strongest evidence of thinking along these lines appears in 1938. The minister of mines at the time requested and received a legal opinion as to whether the government could seek compensation for damages to Crown land through the sulphur fumes arbitrator process, just as individual citizens did. The deputy attorney-general indicated the government could indeed do so.38 Nothing appears to have come of this idea, however.

The factors behind the inaction are many. They would include the long-standing bias in industrial societies towards production and economic growth and the resulting and equally well-recognized reluctance of governments to interfere with the operations of private industry, even when these operations have serious environmental effects. This was a bias much in evidence in Ontario. Its mining industry, as H.V. Nelles has argued, “always seemed to be able to count upon its faithful advocate, the provincial government, to caution those improvident enough to tamper with a going concern…. The regulated group experienced greater success in bringing the regulator under control than the other way around” (Nelles, 1974, 491). Frank MacDougall, Deputy Minister of Lands and Forests who initiated the smelter fumes study, may have ensured his department was not “run” by the forestry companies (Lambert and Pross, 1967, 391). But he was clearly unable to overcome the combined forces of the Department of Mines and the nickel smelters.

Two factors of particular significance to the Sudbury forest situation can be highlighted. The first relates to cost-benefit calculations. Various efforts were made after the war to estimate the economic costs of the damage done to the forests, including the study by Samuel Linzon in the 1970s. Usually, the Department of Mines would say the jobs and taxes resulting from these operations were benefits too substantial and important to be endangered; moreover, the department was working with industry to alleviate any problem there might be. The sad fact is that estimates of environmental cost did not persuade Ontario policy makers of the need to control emissions.

Part of the difficulty for those arguing that Sudbury area forests ought to be protected was that these resources were not unique. As valuable as the region’s white pine stands were, there were other forests and other trees in northern Ontario.

Another difficulty for cost-benefit arguments was the economic effect of the smelters. Opponents to sulphur dioxide emission controls at the smelters pointed to the benefits accruing to the province and to the local Sudbury economy from the operations of the nickel industry. Inco and Falconbridge were very large business concerns; they employed thousands and paid substantial taxes.39

The implicit conventional assumption about cost-benefit estimates was that the matter came down to a stark dichotomy: save the trees and close the smelters, or leave the industrial operations unfettered and accept the environmental damage to the forests. Posed that way, most Ontario policy makers (and many living in the Sudbury area) consistently and not surprisingly opted for the latter. The dichotomy is false. Solving the Sudbury tragedy was never a matter of closing the smelters to protect the forests. As Mr. Harless, the American visitor to Lake Chiniguchi, had argued in his 1964 letter, reducing sulphur emissions did not mean necessarily shutting down the plants. If the resolution of the Trail smelter case in the 1930s had proven anything, it had shown that serious air-pollution damage could be averted while metallurgical industries continued to operate. It showed that industrial production and environmental protection were not an either-or proposition. The assumption that stopping the damage would mean closing the smelters was rarely challenged, however. It was never questioned seriously by Ontario governments. Behind this reluctance to value the forests, to consider other environmental costs and to consider benefits as well as costs of emission controls lay a broader, overriding factor. During the second World War, the Sudbury smelters produced more than 90% of the western world’s nickel. And nickel was a key strategic metal, a product instrumental to the war effort. Nickel was of no small importance during the ensuing Cold War, although the Sudbury area’s dominance of nickel supplies declined steadily over the 1950s and 1960s.

Ontario government officials were reluctant to express themselves frankly, even in confidential records, on the significance of nickel to war efforts. Perhaps they saw no need to articulate to each other the rationale for their hands-off stance. Federal officials, however, felt less constrained. Lathe of the National Research Council put the matter most succinctly. The operation of the Sudbury plants, he argued, “is far more important to Canada and to the world than are the agricultural crops and forests likely to be damaged.” While compensation ought to be paid for any damages done, Lathe added, “nickel production is too important an industry to justify restriction.”40

That did not mean smelters should be left entirely unregulated, free to wreak whatever environmental havoc they wished. Federal scientists envisaged and discussed with provincial officials various possible, albeit limited, control regimes, often patterned after the one designed for the Cominco smelter in Trail. Those discussions did not go far. The government of Ontario did not want to prompt a confrontation with the smelter companies that might place the government on a slippery regulatory slope. Confrontation was to be avoided whatever the environmental and political costs. And, unfortunately for the northern Ontario forests, Canadian society’s distinct societal bias towards jobs and economic growth in the latter twentieth century did not make the political costs very substantial. The government at Queen’s Park knew most Ontarians accepted the trade-off reflected in government policy. Forest damage was deemed a reasonable price to pay for the benefits of nickel production. The intractable stance taken by Queen’s Park was testimony to the depth of its commitment to the nickel smelting industry, of its willingness to accept the environmental costs of those operations and of its resistance to taking policy measures. Undertaking decades of studies was as far as it was prepared to go. More studies were never hard To justify. The scientists involved seldom argued that enough was known, that more study was unnecessary. And the bureaucrats needed little encouragement from the scientists to delay action. A final example should suffice. In response to local complaints in 1973 about damage to vegetation in the Lake Chiniguchi area, the Ontario Ministry of Environment undertook yet another investigation. It found acute and chronic injury, including patches of dead trees. The verdict? More study was clearly needed. Why? According to one official, the source of the problem might be acid rainfall, since other research was beginning to show that the rainfall and snowfall throughout Northern Ontario were acidic, regardless of distance from the Sudbury smelters. In this way, and in one last ironic twist, the belated discovery of acid rain had become the convenient excuse for doing yet more studies of forest damage.


The damage done to the Sudbury area forests by smelter emissions is one case where scientific research did not lead to policy action. As Samuel Linzon acknowledged 30 years ago, the government knew large areas of forest in northern Ontario were severely affected by sulphur dioxide. The Department of Lands and Forests noted that the problem “received a great deal of study,” mostly by government scientists. Yet study never led to the government telling the nickel smelters in the Sudbury area to reduce their emissions. One of those scientists (Linzon 1978, 153) once asked a key question: “What degree of [adverse] effects is a jurisdiction willing to accept?” The answer, in this case, seems inescapable: the government of Ontario was willing to accept all the adverse effects that were observed, if not more. To be sure, scientists sometimes disagreed. There were disagreements about the extent of the damage around the Sudbury smelters and whether the forest damage was due to disease or to sulphur fumes. Scientific assumptions got in the way of asking key questions or drawing the appropriate conclusions from scientific findings. More compelling than the controversies though is the extent to which the same findings emerged from most of the scientific studies carried out after the late 1930s.

The Ontario government did not feel it could ignore the forest problem. It had no interest in taking action, but it felt compelled to study the damage being done. And study it and study it. The Sudbury case is not a straightforward example of a government lacking scientific evidence about an environmental problem. It is not an example of a government refusing to undertake research into a problem. There was no doubt that SO^sup 2^ was damaging the forests of the Sudbury region. The damage and its cause had been clear since at least 1950. The Trail smelter case had settled most of the doubts. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the policy makers were going through the motions. Their goal was to be seen to be doing something about the problem. To be seen doing nothing was not an attractive option, even when pollution was less a priority than it is today. To do something, to reduce the emissions, was even less attractive, for different reasons. The scientific investigations done for decades in the rugged but failing forests of the Sudbury region had their value. That value lay less in the information compiled by the scientists than in the fact that the studies were done at all. The value, in short, lay not in the product of the scientific investigations but in the process of doing them. As each study was launched and then completed, the government could say it was working on the problem, as the Department of Lands and Forests told Mr. Harless, the visitor to Lake Chiniguchi. And while the scientists were at work, there was always the promise of more information. This was not a case of science facilitating policy. It was a case of science replacing policy, or at least of science performed and performed again to fill a policy gap.

Copyright Trent University Summer 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

You May Also Like

Perspectives critiques dan des productions litteraires migrantes au feminin, au Quebec et au Canada

Perspectives critiques dan des productions litteraires migrantes au feminin, au Quebec et au Canada Verduyn, Christl Perspectives cr…

From hewers of wood to producers of pulp: True crime in Canadian pulp magazines of the 1940s

From hewers of wood to producers of pulp: True crime in Canadian pulp magazines of the 1940s Loo, Tina [HEADNOTE] In the 1940s…

[Immigrant Canada: demographic, economic & social challenges]

[Immigrant Canada: demographic, economic & social challenges] Anderson, Christopher G A Nation of Immigrants: Past, Present and Futu…

Modernization and reaction: Postwar evolutions and the critique of higher learning in English-speaking Canada, 1945-1970

Modernization and reaction: Postwar evolutions and the critique of higher learning in English-speaking Canada, 1945-1970 Philip A Massolin…