Teck Cominco Zinc Smelter

Some photos from our guided tour of the Teck Smelter in Trail, BC.

While in BC we took a quick trip into the valley from Rossland to the town of Trail. Trail is the sort of place where people ask if you’ve been there and then brace themselves slightly for the answer. They have the slightly nervous attitude of the person at  a share house preemptively apologising to a guest for the state of the kitchen.

Even the people from outer Trail pretend that their suburb is actually another place. But to my eyes it’s quite picturesque. Nestled at the bottom of some really large mountains with a beautiful river running through it that’s wider than anything I’ve seen in Australia.

But it’s definitely a town that’s seen better days. Many houses are run-down or boarded up. A bunch of businesses that actually operate appear closed until you cup your hands against the window and look in. Despite the old ‘Find Your Trail’ tourist signage on the road into town It’s clearly not a place that expects many walk-in customers.

The town is presided over by the massive Teck/Cominco zinc and lead smelter and refinery which was the main employer for about a century and is the sole reason for the existence of the town itself. The tour was run from the chamber of commerce building downtown in an office called the Teck Interpretive Center. Named for the multinational that now runs the smelter. When Mars and I organised our tour we were the only people there so we got a personal talk by Wally (75) who worked at the smelter until retiring in 1996. He now helps run the funeral home in Trail and acts as a guide on Tours of the plant free of charge.

Wally screened a couple of VHS tapes for us. The first was a rundown of the history of mining in Rossland with a long montage of dapper-looking mustachioed entrepreneurs interspersed with some pretty nightmarish footage of early mining operations and a completely denuded Trail valley. The second video belongs to that era of early 90s educational/corporate propaganda videos that look adorably dated now (Look Around You). Commercial mining no longer goes on in Rossland so the video focuses on Red Dog mine in northern Alaska where the zinc and lead concentrates used in the plant originate.

Much of the video depicts the ludicrous scale of Red Dog and the giant fuckoff road they built to get all the modular sections of the facility out onto the permafrost. Awkwardly the video then tries to go on to emphasise the many attempts made to reduce the mine’s environmental impact.

The video went on to show how the mine had provided the local Inuit population with skills training and employment in all areas of the business (except management presumably). But there’s little attempt to conceal how harsh the working conditions are. Living quarters look like the club med of the damned and you wear a parka over your parkas at the best of times and you pull yourself hand over hand on a cable through a blizzard to get around at the worst of times.

Following the videos we were shown to a slightly-interactive CRT monitor where a weird glowing blue digital face like Zordon from the Power Rangers answered questions we hadn’t thought to ask about zinc electrolysis. Sadly no Troy McLure to tell us about a world without zinc but they did have a number of zinc and lead products on display and we each got some zinc-infused chocolate which was tasty.

Next Wally took us to the electrolytic plant itself. His car was cluttered with little Canadian trinkets and liturgical music CDs. The drive up gave us some idea of the scale of the place as it took ten minutes of driving alongside the plant to find the right entrance and we clearly hadn’t driven the length of the complex. The smelter is one of the biggest in the world and during its heyday it employed about five and half thousand of Trail’s residents. Nowadays much of the process has been mechanised and the staff have been reduced to 1500 which goes some way to explaining the depressed state of Trail township. A big digital display on the highway shows what the current stock exchange price for zinc and lead.

The plant certainly seemed quiet with a few portly middle aged men with moustaches sitting in little stucco offices looking at gauges and levels on computer monitors. It’s all very Springfield nuclear power plant. Photography isn’t allowed inside the plant but the cell house of the electrolytic building would make for a pretty amazing image. Thousands of electrically charged racks sitting in pools of liquid concentrate. Wally tells us that when you’re walking around inside the charge is such that you can magnetically daisy-chain a handful of quarters. Behind the window the whole building has this yellow hue and all the metal and concrete inside is stained by the slow accretion of acid fumes.

When Wally worked here he chipped the zinc sheets off the cathode panel by hand with a thing that looked like a long cold chisel. Working inside the plant is essentially like working in a giant fume hood. If the extractor fans fail or a fire breaks out evacuation has to occur immediately. HAZMAT drills are a routine and the plant has its own fire brigade and emergency services constantly on standby.

The smelting area was similarly impressive with big, mechanically-stirred cauldrons of liquid metal like granita machines from hell and stacks of cold zinc ingots in various sizes depending on the size of the factory they’re destined for.

After that we thanked Wally for showing us around and headed back to town. The tour is free and is offered out of town pride and, taken as a whole, it’s an oddly warts-and-all depiction of the industry and its history. It’s also probably the first time I’ve seen any sort of heavy industry up close. The Teck plant has a particularly sordid track record when it comes to its environmental impact. There’s a depressingly long list of accidental spills and routine dumping into the Colombia river over the last hundred years (found here) and recently Harvard Medical School has done research into the health problems of residents in just one township downstream and confirmed a higher rate of diseases associated with heavy metal contamination among those residents (read the Huff Post article here).

But I think it’s worth noting that multinationals like Tech get away with these practises partly because the majority of people are unwilling to really consider the big industrial processes required to create all these low cost vehicles and batteries and consumer goods. Mining and industrial companies are generally pretty reluctant to open themselves up to public scrutiny but there’s also an element of wilful ignorance on the part of the general public on what it really means to have a ‘resource economy’.

Big thanks to Wally, our guide on the tour.

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