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The Drift: Trees, bees, fish and seeds: Vale’s biodiversity initiatives helping to recharge Sudbury’s landscape

Modest greenhouse in city’s Copper Cliff neighbourhood is at the heart of unique reclamation program

On a cool, mid-winter morning, the outside temperature in Copper Cliff, just outside of Sudbury, has dipped to -10 and a fresh coat of newly fallen snow is blanketing the area. But inside the greenhouse owned by nickel miner Vale, it’s a balmy 29 degrees.

It’s rare for international mining companies to have greenhouses listed among their assets, but from the glass-walled facility, nestled at the end of a cozy street in a residential neighbourhood, Vale has happily been churning out thousands of tree seedlings annually since the 1950s.

That’s when the company — back then known as INCO — devised a plan to grow trees in-house, which would then be planted in the surrounding area.

It was an early acknowledgement of the need to help the area’s vegetation regenerate following years of mining, noted Quentin Smith, a project engineer in the environmental department of Vale’s Sudbury operations.

“Vale understood, even way back then, that we had had an impact on the landscape, the ‘Sudbury moonscape,’” Smith said, invoking the unflattering nickname applied to the city in the 1970s.

“That was generally caused by the low-level sulfur emissions from the two smelters that are here in Sudbury — Glencore’s smelter and our smelter, and then other smelters that were located around the (Sudbury) basin.”

Sulfur dioxide had leached into the soil, making it difficult for anything to grow. But things started turning around in 1972 when INCO built a 1,250-foot smokestack — known colloquially as the Superstack — which dispersed particulate more widely, enabling area plant life to sprout again in the city.

During that same era, the city formed the Vegetation Enhancement Technical Advisory Committee (VETAC), which has worked closely with Vale, fellow nickel miner Glencore, and other local stakeholders to establish a coordinated approach to reclamation.

In addition to having a representative sitting on VETAC, a position currently occupied by Smith, Vale provides the city with 50,000 tree seedlings every year, which are then planted at locations throughout the Sudbury basin.

According to VETAC, between 1979 and 2020, nearly 10 million trees have been planted at a cost of $34.3 million, and thousands of hectares have been rehabilitated throughout the city.

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It all starts in the greenhouse, where the seeds are nestled in a round cake of peat and then watered to kickstart the germination process, which takes a couple of days, Smith said. Two weeks later, they’ll have grown into small seedlings.

After spending another few months in the greenhouse where they remain warm and protected from pests, wind, and weeds, the seedlings will be moved to the tree yard on the greenhouse grounds to acclimate to the outside environment.

“Then they sprout up, and by September, these guys that we put outside will be six to eight inches tall, and will be ready to be planted as part of our fall tree planting campaign,” Smith said.

The Vale greenhouse has the capacity to grow 200,000 trees a year, focusing on conifers like red pine, jackpine, white pine, and some spruce varieties.

Though the company has, in the past, tried cultivating a number of deciduous varieties, conifers have become their preferred type of tree to grow.

“They germinate and grow fairly quickly, particularly in the early stages, which is important for us to be able to get them started and move them out in order to accommodate the next crop,” Smith said.

Before any of the seedlings hit the ground, however, Vale undertakes aerial seeding, spreading a mix of lime, grass seed, and fertilizer over distressed areas that have been designated for planting.

“The lime and the fertilizer get into the soil column and enhance the soil to create the conditions for the trees to be planted,” Smith said. “The grass seed is there to stabilize the soil and provide a bit of a root mat that the tree can grow into so it doesn’t just get blown away or blown around.”

The following year, the tree planters go in and plant the seedlings, and Vale begins the process all over again.

Yet trees aren’t the only things flourishing in the greenhouse.

About a decade ago, as a bit of an experiment, Vale added fish to its repertoire. Workers cobbled together a makeshift growing system, complete with a rearing tank, and air purification and water filtration systems.

“We thought it was a great idea, and we had the space here,” Smith said. “We started very small.”

Rainbow trout fingerlings, sourced from an aquaculture operation on Manitoulin Island, were raised for five months over the winter. In the spring of 2012, the fingerlings were released into the Onaping River, a process that was supervised by the then-Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

Feedback from the ministry, the community and the company was so positive, greenhouse staff decided to keep it going, expanding the operation year by year.

A decade later, Vale is rearing speckled and rainbow trout, which are “fairly straightforward to grow” and have long been identified as ideal species for restocking programs, Smith said.

“We’re targetting 15 centimetres (roughly six inches) (for) when they can be released,” Smith said, noting they often will hold fish longer to ensure they’re robust enough to prosper. “The bigger they are, when you release them, the greater chance of survival they’ll have when they get out there.”

Batches of about 1,000 or 2,000 fish are released at a time, after consultation with the ministry.

During peak seasons, the operation has grown between 20,000 and 30,000 fish annually, Smith said, but in more recent years, that number has hovered around 5,000 or 10,000.

The next release will take place some time this spring once the ice has receded from the shoreline and the fish have had an opportunity to adjust to life outside the tank.

“Leaving it until March allows the water temperatures to equilibrate a little better, and we do put (the fish) through an acclimation process as well,” Smith said.

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As an extension of the work undertaken at the greenhouse, Vale has introduced other programs to boost biodiversity over the years.

Through its pollinator program, the company plants milkweed on its property to encourage the propagation of monarch butterflies. The insects feed off the plant’s small, pink flowers and lay their eggs on the plants.

Milkweed is integral to the survival of the species, which travels to Mexico from North America each year after wintering in warmer climates.

In early fall, after the plants have flowered, Vale’s environmental crew collects the milkweed’s large pods to retrieve the seeds inside. They’re then saved and used for planting the following year, Smith said.

In conjunction with that project, Vale has set up beehives on two of its Sudbury properties in an effort to bolster the local honeybee population. The population of these important pollinators have been under threat in recent years due to environmental factors.

Under the direction of volunteer beekeeper Bob Dewar, a retired teacher, the apiary has prospered, with healthy bees now populating about 30 hives and eagerly producing honey.

Last year alone, Vale donated 650 jars of the sweet stuff to the Sudbury Food Bank, whose member organizations support 8,500 people every month.

About seven years ago, Vale’s biodiversity work moved outside the greenhouse onto the grounds, where the company built raised planter beds for community members to plant, grow and harvest their own vegetables.

Vale prepares the beds for planting, providing seeds, soil, and water to participants, and puts the beds to rest each fall.

At the outset, about 25 families signed up to participate. Over the last two years, interest has grown to nearly twice that, and the company is thinking about expanding, Smith said.

“There’s a tremendous interest in gardening, and it’s a good COVID pastime,” he said.

For its collective efforts over the years, Vale received an Environmental Excellence Award from the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) in 2018.

Despite the breadth of measures being taken by Vale and its partners, there’s a lot of work still to be done.

In 2020, Peter Beckett, a founding member of VETAC, estimated that, of the work required to fully rehabilitate Sudbury’s impacted landscape, just half has been completed. Yet the effort is having an impact.

“Already there are certain sites in the Sudbury area, which, with further work, are likely to be declared complete,” Beckett said at the time.

For Vale, growing trees and fish, cultivating milkweed and bee colonies, and building planter boxes are tangible markers of the company's efforts to give back to the community, Smith said.

That type of visible, hands-on work tends to resonate more with residents than any biodiversity study or corporate document ever could.

As such, the work has been personally satisfying for Smith, a specialist in decommissioning, who enjoys his work at the greenhouse, where he interacts regularly with the neighbours and community members who drop by regularly for a chat.

“I think this is great what Vale’s doing, and I think it’s one of the more meaningful things that I’m involved with in my day-to-day job,” Smith said.

“This is neat stuff; it gets you motivated in a bit of a different way.”