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Cobalt mining conference taking shape

Land rehabilitation, mining legacy and cobalt exploration are featured topics at September event
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Cobalt remediation
The Town of Cobalt's land remediation efforts will be part of the discussion at the Green Mining Conference in September.

There’s definitely a dual meaning that applies to the inaugural Green Mining Conference being held in the Town of Cobalt this September.

For decades, the northeastern Ontario community of 1,100 endured the environmental legacy issues left behind by the town’s famed Silver Rush at the turn of the last century; something Agnico Eagle Mines has spent considerable time and money on to clean up old mine workings.

At the same time, Cobalt is back on the world stage as an exploration hotspot for its namesake metal that’s powering the expanding electric vehicle battery market.

A number of mining companies have staked prospective ground around the historic former mining town in the search for cobalt, a so-called green-tech mineral needed to feed the growing lithium battery market. Cobalt was discarded as a waste by-product metal mixed in with silver.

“The movement for green mining has been around for a few years,” said Mayor Tina Sartoretto, who’s organizing the program for the Sept. 12-14 event.

“When we were discussing the potential for having a small mining conference, we put that out there thinking we were so clever. It really does sound like an oxymoron.”

After silver mining tailed off in the 1930s, it wasn’t even a remote thought to clean up the mine properties, of which there had been 100 operating in the area.

“It was narrow vein mining with a pick, shovel and a few sticks of dynamite,” said Sartoretto.

Like most boom-and-bust camps, Cobalt and Coleman Township were littered with the hazards of abandoned wooden headframes, uncapped shafts, crumbling building foundations and toxic tailings discharged into lakes.

“There’s land around town where the grass doesn’t grow,” said Sartoretto.

“We’re kind of the poster child for what you shouldn’t do in mining.”

But the way companies mined back then is not the way it’s done today. Government regulations won’t allow it.

Since the early 1990s, companies are required to file mine closure plans with the province and set aside cleanup funds to rehabilitate the site before commercial production even starts.

Cobalt’s mining legacy, the land reclamation efforts, and the prospect of a new era of mining will be on display with an impressive and diverse speakers list assembled for the conference.

Booked for the event are an eclectic mix of presenters from industry and academia, including First Cobalt president Trent Mell, Polymet Labs president and local prospector Gino Chitaroni, Laurentian University biomining and bioremediation expert Nadia Mykytczuk, environmental consultant Maria Story, and Goldcorp’s vice-president of government affairs and energy John Mullally.

The conference capacity is 120 delegates. Overnight accommodations are just minutes away in nearby Temiskaming Shores.

Sartoretto is promoting the event as an intimate gathering and networking opportunity for professionals who work in land remediation and reclamation. Along with the presentations, a pre-conference mixer and a gala dinner are planned at venues around town.

For sleepy towns like Cobalt, the spinoffs from exploration activity are a gift that keeps on giving.

Sartoretto has noticed companies and individuals have purchased local homes on speculation, once-empty commercial buildings are occupied, and exploration crews are keeping motels, lodges and restaurants in the area quite busy. And it’s no longer an odd sight to see low-flying aircraft doing airborne geotechnical surveys.

She isn’t certain if this will be a one-and-done conference – since it’s an all-volunteer endeavour – but the desired outcome is to shine a spotlight on what’s happening in the South Temiskaming and Temagami districts.

At the same time, she wants to remind all that these are the traditional lands of the Algonquin people. Once mine production is over, the land must be returned to nature.

“We can’t just leave those scars like we used to do.

“Respect for the environment and mining activities doesn't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive so what conference is hoping to do is find that middle ground that allows for mining activity and successful mineral extraction. At the same time, we’re respecting the environment and the people who are going to continue living there.”