Right to Clean Air

Photo Credit: Dan Mesec

Right to Clean Air

👤Dan Mesec 🕔Jul 31, 2018

Take a deep breath. When was the last time you thought about the air you’re breathing? Do you know how clean it is, or how polluted? Probably not—what we breathe we often don’t see.

In the city we assume the air we breathe is somewhat polluted, from car exhaust, industrial pollutants and chemicals. In northern BC, surrounded by endless forests and pristine waterways, we often don’t think twice about the quality of the air we breathe.

But since the Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) aluminum smelter in Kitimat was permitted to increase its sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 56 percent a few years ago, the question of air quality has been front-of-mind for many, especially given that this is a part of the province most wouldn’t associate with low air quality.

In 2013, when RTA initiated a modernization project to bring the smelter into the 21st century, it was welcome news for a community hit hard by an economic downturn. The community experienced a slight upswing in the local economy as thousands of workers descended on Kitimat. Now completed, a majority of the harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the facility have been drastically reduced. Except for sulphur dioxide, a colourless, pungent, and toxic gas.

At first no one seemed to notice as the BC Liberals under former premier Christy Clark quietly approved and permitted an increase of SO2 output from 27 tonnes per day to 42 tonnes per day. But the issue soon caught the eye of Lis Stannus, a local teacher and Kitimat resident for over 20 years.

“Going on six years ago Rio Tinto put out a notice that they were going to have a consultation about the Kitimat modernization and it was a tiny little article in the paper,” Stannus says. “But then we found out that it was an application for a consultation meeting to increase sulphur dioxide in the community, by a substantial amount. Prior to that everyone was pretty pumped about the modernization. It was supposed to be a green facility, modern technology, smaller footprints. So when we found out the reason for the notice, we were very disappointed.”

Stannus and her colleague, Emily Toews, subsequently challenged the approval of the permit, as well as the Environmental Effects Monitoring Plan (EEMP), through the BC Environmental Appeals Board in 2013. They prodded the provincial government about why the increase in SO2 was approved without requiring RTA to install saltwater scrubbers, a process in which the sulphur dioxide emissions are reduced or removed completely from the facility’s outflow.

“From that moment in April 2013, we’re still fighting that permit in some shape or form,” says Stannus. “The appeal for the permit itself was heard in 2015 and we lost that case. I find it upsetting that Rio Tinto is a large corporation and they’re going to make a lot of money and a lot of that money is not going to stay in this town. People benefit from this, but on the other hand, the local people, their rights are being stomped on.”

Although they lost the original case trying to overturn the SO2 increase permit, Toews and Stannus aren’t finished. They’re continuing to pursue their case, focussing on the environmental and health monitoring issues. Even the local union, Unifor 2301, has launched their own challenge of the increased SO2 and monitoring plan, citing the potential impacts on the RTA workers they represent. Both cases are still slowly making their way through the courts, scheduled to be heard in early 2019. Chris Tollefson, legal counsel representing Stannus, says essentially the case will boil down to a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge.

“The legal landscape going forward is complicated,” Tollefson explains. “Initially we have to argue this in front of the Environmental Appeal Board about the scientific and technical adequacy of the Environmental Management Plan, the monitoring solutions and data collection.

“We’ll also be arguing the larger constitutional question, which is, did the ministry err in signing off on the project to emit these harmful toxins into the air when the Charter says that all citizens have the right for their health to be protected by their government? And we would say the Charter here has been infringed because government has not taken adequate steps to recognize and to protect citizens’ health.”

Following the increase in SO2 emission, Stannus, along with several of her neighbours also concerned with health impacts, started a local advocacy group, the Kitimat-Terrace Clean Air Coalition, to get the message out and build support.

Their main issue is how the monitoring of the sulphur dioxide is conducted and what the long-term impacts to Kitimat residents’ health will be. According to a 2012 Northern Health study, Kitimat already experiences 60 percent more cases of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema than the provincial average. But the studies are limited and inconclusive as to the specific causes of these high rates of respiratory illnesses.

Dr. David Bowering, former chief medical officer for Northern Health, has a pretty good idea. “The smoking rates in the North have always been higher than the average in BC,” he says, also referring to the use of wood heating and the smoke that leaks back into houses. “And then there’s the industrial component. From the poor data that is available people in that area already have somewhat of a higher risk of having respiratory problems. This is before we start talking about SO2 or anything else added to the airshed.”

However, the BC Ministry of Environment maintains that their monitoring programs ensure the levels of sulphur dioxide released into the airshed are well below the threshold to impact human health.   “Under the SO2 Environmental Effects Monitoring Program, human health is monitored through the human health key performance indicator,” David Karn, Senior Public Affair Officer for the Ministry of Environment writes in an email.

“It is defined as the hourly BC Air Quality Objective for SO2, and is determined from continuous measurements of ambient SO2 at three residential stations in the Kitimat Valley: Whitesail, Riverlodge, and Haisla Village. To date, SO2 levels have remained well below the threshold.”

But Dr. Bowering and Stannus say there are too many unknowns and more thorough investigations of the health impacts associated with SO2 and other industrial pollution in the Kitimat airshed are needed before their faith in government monitoring is restored.

“What they’re doing is monitoring it on selected sites on the ground and as long as there isn’t something precipitating it down and the winds are blowing the way they’re supposed to, the levels may be relatively low,” says Dr. Bowering. “But nobody really knows.

“If we have anything in the North that’s world-class that people around the world would kill for, it’s really clean air,” he continues. “So to trade that off and treat the airshed like it was essentially a sewer—let’s see just how much we can put into it before we can prove that people are getting sick—it’s really not smart. It’s actually kind of insane.”

The unanswered questions regarding the health impacts from years of industrial pollution were just too big to ignore for Rose Lee and her husband, who spent 25 years in Kitimat. When their daughter left the community to pursue education, they decided to sell their house and move to Vancouver Island. They didn’t want their daughter coming back to Kitimat.

“As a teacher, what I started to notice, with our shrinking population, was more and more health issues in some of my students, and that concerned me,” Lee says.

“We left Kitimat because we didn’t want our daughter coming back. And we definitely did not want her to have a baby in Kitimat because we were concerned with what we saw and issues with some birth defects. They weren’t all necessarily related to the current air emissions, but we don’t know!”

Recently Lee became a grandmother and says her daughter still has a lot of friends in Kitimat, but won’t visit with the newborn because she’s still so concerned about the health impacts they witnessed for more than 20 years.

“I don’t understand why, when you spend that kind of money to modernize the facility, why they wouldn’t just take that extra step and put in the scrubbers. It’s foolish,” she says.

“It isn’t [Uncle Al] anymore, it’s totally different. Once Rio Tinto took over, they’re an international company, they don’t give two hoots. It really changed, it changed the whole fabric of the town.”

Rio Tinto, along with the BC Ministry of Environment, continue to keep close tabs on the amount of SO2 in the Kitimat airshed and maintain they can mitigate the situation through monitoring stations to ensure there are no adverse effects to the community. And if adverse effects are ever found, the current RTA permit could be scaled back to lower SO2 emission levels.

RTA is currently emitting between 30 to 33 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per day, well below the permit limit. They recently established an Air Quality Health Index in Kitimat to better inform the public about airshed monitoring. But RTA insists dispersing the SO2 into the airshed is the best way to manage those emissions.

“Prior to making a decision on how to manage SO2 emissions, Rio Tinto conducted 18 months of studies on options of managing SO2 with experts from around the world,” Kevin Dobbin, RTA BC Works Communications Manager writes in an email.

“Through this work and modelling, that has been proven accurate, air dispersion was shown to be the least impactful way to discharge SO2. The new way of emitting the SO2 is from a high stack at high speed and high temperature and the results have been averaging at or below 1 ppb, while the Ministry of Environment guideline is currently 75 parts per billion.”

But that does little to reassure Stannus and her neighbours that the air they breathe, over the long term, is not toxic and hopes that once her case is back in court the government and Rio Tinto will genuinely acknowledge their concerns.

“I feel disrespected by Rio Tinto, and I hope that somehow we get resolution with this company,” says Stannus. “My hope is they start listening to us and say, ‘Yeah, the people are right, let’s make sure things are the best they can be,’ instead of this fight. There seems to be no acknowledgement that people have genuine concerns about health.

“My hope is government gets back on track with balancing the rights of people with industry, and puts people first. I do want people to have jobs, but I don’t want it to be at any cost. We want the best quality of life possible here, just like anybody would want in British Columbia.”

This article was co-published with The Discourse and another version can be read here: https://www.thediscourse.ca/uncategorized/the-fight-for-clean-air-in-b-c-s-kitimat-valley If you have any questions or ideas to help Dan with his reporting, connect with him on Facebook or email him at danielmesec@gmail.com.