Gordon Dalzell Irving Oil refinery

The man who took on the Irving Oil refinery and won

When it comes to those yawn-worthy, overly technical, bureaucratic reviews of major projects like refineries and pipelines — is public participation really even worth the effort? One individual’s lonely battle against dangerous air pollution says yes

SAINT JOHN, N.B. — When Gordon Dalzell learned the Irving Oil refinery’s air quality permit was up for review, he got to work.

In the quiet of winter, Dalzell, a Saint John-based clean air activist, hunkered down with his research and a blue pen, detailing his findings in sweeping cursive, hoping his words would impact one of the country’s biggest polluters.

In Champlain Heights, where Dalzell has lived since 1977, there are about 100 homes, an elementary school and a community college campus. Thickets of trees block the Irving Oil refinery, Canada’s largest, from view, but look at a satellite image and next door you see more than two dozen tanks dotting the landscape like white buttons.

In the past decade, multiple published reports have detailed excess discharges of fine particulate matter from the refinery’s smokestacks leaving a white dusty coating on cars and homes nearby. In 2018, the refinery pumped a black, grainy mystery product from the smokestacks, and although the residents of Champlain Heights received apology letters from Irving, neither the company nor the New Brunswick government revealed what the substance was. Irving looms large in the province, a family-owned conglomerate with holdings in everything from oil and lumber, to retail and newspapers.

On his street, Dalzell counts multiple Irving employees as neighbours — none of whom submitted comments to the refinery’s air quality review. “Many people who would perhaps like to participate are hesitant to do so because they might fear reprisals or retribution,” he says. “I think sometimes they’re even afraid to talk to me for fear that they’re associated with somebody that criticizes their employer.”

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Dalzall Irving Oil Refinery Champlain Heights

Dalzell walks through a stand of trees that block the view of the Irving Oil refinery from his neighbourhood of Champlain Heights. Photo: Desmond Simon / The Narwhal

Dalzell isn’t one to stay quiet. He was once kicked off an Irving Oil environmental committee for sharing information with Reuters news service. And for the last 25 years, Dalzell has participated as a citizen activist in various provincial and federal forums, so providing input on establishing the refinery’s regulations for the next five years, wasn’t new to him. Though the process is anonymous, Dalzell spoke to local media about his submission after realizing he was the only member of the public to provide one. 

His 200-page, handwritten tome raised 33 issues ranging from benzene levels in pollution coming from the plant to emission monitoring.

Due in part to Dalzell’s prodding, the limits of both nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide emission levels for the refinery were reduced to 4,500 tonnes annually — a decline of 18 and 13 per cent respectively. He also convinced the province to lower the acceptable levels of particulate matter in Irving’s refinery emissions. But he wonders if more could have been accomplished if his wasn’t a lone voice.

It’s a question relevant not only in New Brunswick, but in the broader context of participation in environmental policy development across the country.

‘The onus for fairness lies with government’

Canadians have had the opportunity to participate in environmental processes for more than 25 years federally, via the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Regulation for specific issues, like air quality, falls to provinces who have their own mechanisms; Dalzell’s activism helped make this a reality in New Brunswick after demanding public participation in the province’s Clean Air Act in 1997.

Governments have done a great deal of work to create channels for the public to make their voices heard by decision-makers. But just because opportunities exist doesn’t mean people are ready or willing to speak up. And public participation certainly isn’t a silver bullet for better environmental policies.

In a 1997 paper environmental lawyer Andrew Green suggested public participation could lead to less than optimal results: risking overregulation when public demand for control is high or underregulation when public interest is low. The underlying issue, he said, is the environmental policies themselves. Public participation can’t be seen as a way to counterbalance old regulations that favour the desires of industry.

Across Canada, some provincial air quality standards are long out of date, and public participation results in stricter guidelines for permits and approvals than what regulations dictate. New Brunswick’s air quality regulation, for instance, has not been comprehensively reviewed since its 1997 inception. In Ontario, it took almost 45 years and the prodding of environmental law organization Ecojustice for the province to lower its sulphur dioxide standards.

Lois Corbett of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick calls the province’s mechanisms to participate one of the country’s worst. “The onus for fairness, openness and transparency lies with the Department of Environment and with government in general,” she says. 

Dalzell air pollution Irving Oil refinery

Due in part to Dalzell’s activism, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide pollution from the Irving Oil refinery were significantly reduced. Photo: Desmond Simon / The Narwhal

The Narwhal requested information on trends in participation in New Brunswick’s air quality reviews from the province, but no response was received. Similarly the Minister of Environment and Local Government, Jeff Carr, did not respond to a request for comment.

For the province to do better, Corbett says, it would need to take a more hands-on role in connecting citizens with the process. But in New Brunswick where an estimated one in 12 people work for a single employer — Irving — she feels there’s a cynicism overshadowing the process. “They don’t believe that the government is making decisions on their behalf and it didn’t matter who weighed in, with what evidence. There wouldn’t be a change.”

In other areas most impacted by polluting sites across the country, similarly divided loyalties could be present.

In recent cases where public participation was requested on projects with potential environmental impacts, participation varied widely by project and sector. In Sarnia, Ont., a city, like Saint John, impacted by air pollution due to local Imperial Oil and Shell refineries, a recent air compliance approval had no public participation. Yet recent changes to regulations around forestry in Ontario saw 25 submissions and 1,200 emails. 

Shaun Fluker, associate professor at the University of Calgary’s law faculty, says big numbers can be misleading. They may indicate participants using form letters or email templates, rather than engaging in a more substantive way. But the question remains why participation happens in a big way in some cases, and is so limited in others.

Sarnia Ontario Chemical Valley

Sarnia, Ontario, known as Chemical Valley, has some of the worst air quality in the province due to a high concentration of industrial facilities. Photo: Garth Lenz

Clinton Westman, associate professor in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who counts among his research interests environmental policy participation, points to the Trans Mountain pipeline as an example of ranges in public participation.

When it was first built in the 1950s, there was no formal opportunity for public participation in approving the pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. But when Kinder Morgan proposed building another pipeline, largely along the same route, public interest was high. Westman notes many of the channels for participation, including information sessions and online engagement, have been created due to hard work from activists.

“But they seem to also become prone to being co-opted or prone to kind of not fulfilling all the potential for public participation that people thought that they had.”

Hundreds of Canadians were denied the opportunity to present concerns over Trans Mountain after federal legislation led the National Energy Board to include only participants who were “directly affected” or with expertise or relevant information on a given issue. This came after Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline inspired record participation for a National Energy Board review, causing the project’s supporters to bemoan the length of the approval process. In an open letter, then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver complained about the volume of participants, alleging environmental groups and “radicals” had “hijacked” the regulatory system. Despite more than 4,000 10-minute oral statements opposing Northern Gateway, the project was still approved, which leads to the question: how do regulators actually weigh the public input they receive on any given project?

Anna Johnston, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, says it can vary between federal to provincial processes, and that some panels have independent experts who bring their own opinions on the value of public submissions and statements.

Irving Oil Refinery

It can be difficult to enthuse the public about engaging in government project review processes. “I think that the public is really underserved often by the consultation processes that the governments bring forward,” Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director at Dogwood, told The Narwhal. Photo: acapsj / Flickr

For example, she’s heard different feedback on the effectiveness of letter-writing campaigns which produce thousands of “cookie-cutter” responses.

“On the one hand, it could be a demonstration of strong public interest in a particular issue of the product, and people are taking the time to click a button, while others think that there’s such a small amount of energy required to click that button that doesn’t really demonstrate much interest at all.”

Johnston says she’s also seen processes where it seemed like the assessment authority was deeply moved by people’s submissions.

“And then there are other times where the decision making is such a black box, that the decision makers don’t ever show how public comments have been taken into account, if at all,” she adds. “But it appears from the outside that all of that energy — and often money and resources — have been a waste of time.”

Roadblocks to public engagement

Canada’s environmental participation landscape isn’t full of happy stories like Dalzell’s. Westman mentions material outlining proposed projects or issues up for review can be complicated and dense. Marginalized groups — who often live in disproportionately impacted areas — don’t always get heard, for instance when the reviewer limits the number of Indigenous communities that can claim to be impacted. 

There’s no consensus on how to get more people more involved in public participation processes.

“I think that the public is really underserved often by the consultation processes that the governments bring forward,” says Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director at the B.C.-based citizen action group Dogwood. “And so grassroots groups or ENGOs or municipal governments sometimes can serve a role as an intermediary to basically translate what’s at stake, and encourage people to make their voice heard.”

In Nagata’s view, mobile-friendly online processes, including ditching fax communications for emails and surveys would encourage engagement. “There are areas where the government is decades behind technology and the way people actually use and share information.”

Dogwood has proof this works, having helped thousands of people sign up to present at Enbridge’s Northern Gateway hearings through the creation of an online form which sent a fax to the National Energy Board.

Dalzell thinks people don’t participate for multiple reasons, including a belief someone else will, and a perceived lack of time. He estimates he spent between 60 and 70 hours working on his submission for the Irving air quality permit review. Now retired, he has more hours to focus on these sorts of projects, though Dalzell says he actually did more in the past even while working full-time. 

Gordon Dalzell Irving Oil Refinery Saint John New Brunswick

Dalzell says he has devoted a significant amount of time engaging in the public participation process and that it has been “quite a learning curve.” Photo: Desmond Simon / The Narwhal

Fluker, the University of Calgary professor, says one of the most common challenges is the cost of experts.

“Frankly, there’s not a lot of people that have access to those sorts of experts or have the training to really flesh out some of those weaknesses in a proponent’s case,” he says. Having funds available beforehand or government-provided lawyers could assist individuals and groups with navigating the process. Cost assistance exists in some jurisdictions to pay people back after the fact, but that only works for those able to float the money upfront.

Corbett says more public meetings explaining scientific processes to impacted communities could help increase understanding of what’s at stake, and in turn, citizen engagement.

Dalzell’s education and training is in social work. He’s not a trained scientist, but developed the fluency and comfort he has today with esoteric environmental processes over 30 years working alongside community groups. This includes the Citizens’ Coalition for Clean Air, which gathered 13,000 signatures on a petition while lobbying for New Brunswick’s Clean Air Act.

“So it’s not like people couldn’t do this,” he says. “But for me, it was quite a learning curve, quite frankly.”

Local voices needed on project reviews

There is a wide gulf between acknowledgement of climate change’s impacts, and peoples’ willingness to make efforts to help counteract it. Given the immensity of global climate concerns, it might seem like small potatoes to work on something in your own backyard.

But that’s a sentiment with which Corbett disagrees: “I don’t think that there’s anything about the largest refinery on the East Coast that’s ever small.”

Academics have noted that, despite success in creating pathways, like public participation processes, to get information to decision-makers and experts, these avenues don’t necessarily collect the local knowledge and first-hand experiences of individuals. And Dalzell says there’s a lot of value in individual stories in these processes.

“The citizen is the expert in terms of their own health, their own impact on quality of life.”

One of the catalysts for Dalzell to put pen to paper for Irving’s air quality review was the memory of a neighbour who passed away two decades ago from an asthma attack.

“I think when I look back, it was just one of those driving forces that caused me to respect her wish,” he says. “And the other thing is, I knew a lot of people in the neighbourhood who kind of depended on me over the years to do this advocacy work.”

Considering the refinery’s entry on the National Pollutant Release Inventory — two-and-a-half printed pages of air toxins and chemicals, including benzene, arsenic and lead — Dalzell says “it’s a wonder we all haven’t died of cancer in the neighbourhood here.”

“The citizen is the expert in terms of their own health, their own impact on quality of life.”

Rob Csernyik is a journalist and writer based in Saint John, New Brunswick. He has written for The Globe and…

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