Kitimat Residents ‘Muzzled’ From Speaking Out On Rio Tinto Alcan’s Plan to Increase Air Pollution

Lis Stannus remembers how serious the problem of acid rain was in Ontario when she lived on a farm near Lake Huron as a child. So when Rio Tinto Alcan informed Kitimat residents of its plans to increase sulphur dioxide pollution — a key contributor to acid rain —she couldn’t understand why no one fought back.

“Nobody was speaking out,” Stannus said, “and I found it amazing that those people who should have been speaking out weren’t.”

Rio Tinto Alcan received a permit from the B.C. government in 2013 that allowed the company to increase production of aluminum at its smelter in Kitimat, leading to a 56 per cent increase in sulphur dioxide emissions. Currently, both the government and Rio Tinto Alcan are defending that permit in front of a tribunal acting for the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board in Kitimat.

Rio Tinto Alcan says its ‘modernization’ of the smelter is now 94 per cent complete although the tribunal has the power to rescind the province’s permit, putting the immediate future of the plant in question.

The Muzzle Effect: Small Town, Big Company

Stannus said when she first heard about the emissions increase she contacted the city, the Kitimat health authority and local environmental groups to push back against the company’s plans, to no avail.

But it didn’t take long for Stannus to realize “there was a lot of muzzling” going on, she said. “We are all muzzled here.”

Part of the problem, Stannus said, is that the aluminum plant is a major job provider for Kitimat.

“Without Alcan, Kitimat would be nothing,” she said. “Kitimat literally wouldn’t be here.”

Alcan, now owned by multi-national mining magnate Rio Tinto, used to be fondly referred to as “Uncle Al” by Kitimat residents.

The company created Kitimat as an artificial township in the 1950s to support a growing workforce. Although the planned city was originally created with 150,000 residents in mind, its current population is between 8,000 and 9,000 — about 1,400 of which rely on the smelter for employment.

“It’s like nobody would speak out if they worked for Rio Tinto Alcan,” she said. “You just wouldn’t speak up.”

Stannus said she recently spoke to an employee of Rio Tinto Alcan who said he was reprimanded by company officials for posting about sulphur dioxide emissions on his Facebook page.

Morris Amos from the Haisla First Nation said his band council and Rio Tinto Alcan entered into a $22 million “Legacy Agreement” that acts as a gag order on Haisla officials.

“Part of the language of the agreement, which is really more of a contract, includes a clause that talks about the Haisla Nation never coming forward to question anything that Alcan does as long as the agreement is in effect,” he said.

The Legacy Agreement, signed in 2010, guarantees employment, business opportunities and a trust fund for the Haisla Nation as an outcome of Rio Tinto Alcan’s modernization project.

Amos, brother of former elected Haisla chief Gerald Amos, said the agreement means his nation can’t officially question the increase of Rio Tinto Alcan’s sulphur dioxide emissions.

“I take that as a muzzling clause,” he said. “It remains to be seen if that has any force or effect legally — it hasn’t been challenged yet.”

Amos says the Legacy Agreement explains why the Haisla Nation hasn’t played a role in fighting for pollution reductions.

The Legacy Agreement, “is part of the reason why there’s no band council presence in this Environmental Appeals Board hearing,” he said.

Amos said he can speak out about the Legacy Agreement and Rio Tinto Alcan’s sulphur dioxide emissions because he’s not a part of the band council.

“I work for a heredity chief, so that’s another thing altogether.”

Rio Tinto Alcan’s Permit to Pollute

B.C. approved a permit in April 2013 that granted Rio Tinto Alcan the right to increase its sulphur dioxide emissions by 56 per cent.

Stannus, along with fellow Kitimat resident Emily Toews, is appealing that permit approval in the Environmental Appeals Board hearing, arguing the increase in sulphur dioxide emissions unnecessarily threatens human health.

“I was really mad,” Stannus said. “Because it seemed like an infringement of our rights and it went against everything the government told us we were working towards: reducing emissions, keeping the air clean.”

Stannus realized she needed to speak out. “ I thought, ‘I can do it. I don’t have anything to lose.’”

Pollution Reduction Measures Not Required by Province

Rio Tinto Alcan’s ability to reduce its sulphur dioxide emissions is central to the appeal hearings.

Giving testimony before the appeal panel, Ian Sharpe, director of environmental protection with the B.C. Ministry of Environment, said before granting the permit he required evidence Rio Tinto Alcan “could and would” install pollution reduction technology called scrubbers “should there be a need to have emissions lower than what they applied for.”

But rather than require the company to install scrubbers, which would prevent the increase of sulphur dioxide emissions, the province granted Rio Tinto Alcan a permit to increase its emissions for an indefinite amount of time.

Sharpe told the panel he decided not to impose sulphur dioxide limits on Rio Tinto Alcan because both B.C. and the federal government are considering updating their own standards in coming years.

Stannus said she doesn’t understand why the province will allow emissions to go up if the company has already prepared for the installation of scrubbers.

“I learned there was a place put at the plant for wet scrubbers. That was a backup plan,” she said. “I thought, ‘if scrubbers aren’t feasible, why would they do that?’”

Stannus thinks it comes down to penny pinching. Rio Tinto Alcan initially announced its modernization project would cost just over $2 billion but that number has recently skyrocketed to nearly $5 billion.

The Environmental Appeal Board hearings are currently taking place in Kitimat and are now in their third week. The panel could rescind Rio Tinto Alcan’s permit or order the company to install scrubbers.

Image Credit: Lis Stannus courtesy of Doug Keech.

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