In October, B.C. Premier John Horgan made a visit to the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter on the banks of the Douglas Channel in Kitimat.
He praised the facility for being “a great example of how companies can improve conditions for workers and reduce pollution all while improving their bottom line.”
What he didn’t mention was the ongoing battle at Rio Tinto Alcan over a provincial permit that allowed the company to increase sulphur dioxide pollution by more than 50 per cent, or the union representing 800 workers at the smelter that appealed that permit, saying the increase in pollution was a direct threat to their health.
Exposure to sulphur dioxide aggravates the respiratory systems of asthmatics and is known to negatively affect the respiratory systems of children and the elderly.
At the heart of the controversy is a decision by the B.C. Ministry of Environment in 2013, which allowed the smelter to increase its sulphur dioxide emissions into the Kitimat airshed during a $5 billion expansion project. The ministry approved the increase in emissions under an environmental monitoring plan that would measure, but not prevent, the impacts of the pollution on human health until 2019, when the plan would be revisited.
B.C. did not require the company to install scrubbers, commonly used in smelters to remove airborne pollutants from emissions, a decision that still bothers Sean O’Driscoll, president of the smelter’s union, Unifor local 2301.
“Having a monitoring program ongoing, with suitable human health mitigation plans required to be implemented at a later day, has folks feeling like they, their children and neighbours are being treated like guinea pigs,” O’Driscoll told DeSmog Canada.
The B.C. Environmental Appeal Board previously told the union it had no right to challenge the environmental effects monitoring plan. But the court of appeals has now overruled that finding, kicking the original appeal — first launched in 2014 — back into action.
“This [appeal] opens a path for Unifor to challenge the mitigation plan on the basis that it is insufficient to protect workers and their families from growing levels of sulphur dioxide,” Jason Gratl, lawyer for local 2301, told DeSmog Canada.
O’Driscoll said the company was essentially given permission to subject workers and the community to a health risk to minimize costs.
“Our full expectations of the new Horgan NDP government is that they take another look at this issue and put the health of communities first,” O’Driscoll told DeSmog Canada. “Industry and stringent environmental standards need not be mutually exclusive.”
Gratl said the appeal will address whether or not it was appropriate for the government to approve the pollution increase without a clear plan to protect human health.
Governments increasingly approve projects with the explicit plan to work out details after the fact, Gratl said, adding pipeline approvals that come with more than 100 conditions are a prime example.
“What happened with Rio Tinto Alcan is the government said ‘let’s start making aluminum and we’ll figure out the environmental and social issues later.’ And they keep trying to push these issues further down the road.”
Experts-for-Hire at Heart of Rio Tinto Alcan Concerns
Chris Tollefson, lawyer with the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, brought a previous challenge against the Rio Tinto Alcan on behalf of two Kitimat teachers: Lis Stannus and Emily Towes.
In 2015 Tollefson and his co-counsels provided an Environmental Appeal Board tribunal with evidence of alleged regulatory capture.
Regulators and statutory decision-makers within the Ministry of Environment were inappropriately close with Rio Tinto Alcan and relied heavily on science and analysis provided by the company’s hired scientists, Tollefson argued.
Tollefson said this case gives rise to the problems of “professional reliance” — the practice of using proponent-hired experts rather than independent analysts during environmental assessments.
In August, the B.C. government ordered a review of the professional reliance system, which rose in popularity in B.C. under the tenure of the BC Liberals as cuts to the civil service were made.
Tollefson said the reopening of Unifor’s appeal will start a new discovery process that may provide crucial insight into what decisions and decision-makers played a role in the permits and adaptive management plan being approved.
“We’re concerned that the Ministry of Environment relied far too heavily on Rio Tinto Alcan’s experts, on Rio Tinto’s preferred approach and did not subject the environmental effects management plan to the kind of rigorous scrutiny that it deserved; and that it rushed its approval of that management plan in a way that compromised its scientific integrity,” Tollefson said.
‘We Feel Like An Experiment’
Tollefson also said the appeal provides new ground for his clients to relaunch their legal challenge.
Stannus said that is something she plans to pursue.
“Since this permit was approved, we have learned a lot more about the problems of professional reliance, a lot more about the health impacts of sulphur dioxide,” Stannus said.
“It’s a little shocking to me that this is allowed to proceed. We feel like an experiment and I don’t recall ever giving consent to this experiment.”
Stannus said her ears perk up whenever she hears the new government criticize the practice of professional reliance.
“But they never bring Rio Tinto Alcan up,” Stannus told DeSmog Canada. “They never mention the fact that the project’s studies were bought and paid for by Rio Tinto.”
Kitimat Residents Try to Raise Concerns with NDP Government
Stannus said she sought out the premier on his last visit to the area.
Stannus and a community organization she belongs to, the Kitimat-Terrace Clean Air Coalition, have sent three letters to B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman, expressing their fears that Rio Tinto Alcan’s permit to increase sulphur dioxide emissions is a threat to their health. The group has repeatedly asked for meetings with the minister, Stannus said.
“I asked [the Premier] why they won’t meet with us and he said it is because they have only been in power for 100 days,” she said.
In a statement to DeSmog Canada, Minister Heyman said he can “empathize with those who have concerns about air quality in their community.”
“I want to assure everyone that we will restore public confidence in government’s ability to protect our water, land and air,” Heyman said.
He added the environmental effects monitoring plan is currently under appeal with the Environmental Appeal Board.
“As such it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”