VICTORIA – The provincial government is allowing Kitimat, B.C., residents to become pollution guinea pigs, said a lawyer for aluminium smelter union workers who launched court action on Tuesday.
Court documents filed by Unifor Local 2301 claim the province permitted Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. to undertake its $3.3 billion smelter modernization in Kitimat without requiring the company to take measures to reduce harmful sulphur dioxide emissions.
The petition seeks to set aside the government’s approval under the Environmental Management Act on the grounds of failure to consider expert advice on pollution-reduction measures, including installing scrubbers to prevent adverse effects on human health.
“The Oct. 7, 2014 (approval) specified that Rio Tinto need not mitigate risks to human health arising from the increase in daily emissions of (sulphur dioxide) until 2019 and perhaps not even then,” stated the 19-page court petition.
Unifor’s lawyer Jason Gratl said sulphur dioxide causes respiratory and heart problems and daily emissions from the Kitimat smelter will increase from 27 tonnes to 42 tonnes.
The modernization project, set for completion later this spring, is estimated to increase the smelter’s current aluminum production capacity by more than 48 per cent to about 420,000 tonnes per year.
Gratl said the project includes several pollution-reduction measures, but despite reports about the harmful effects sulphur dioxide can have on people, Rio Tinto was permitted to complete the project without sulphur-dioxide scrubbers.
“The approach taken in the Lower Mainland and the Kitimat air shed could not be more diametrically opposed,” he said. “In Vancouver, a precautionary approach is taken that shows respect for human health. In Kitimat, the residents appear to be used as guinea pigs to determine what the upper and lower end of sulphur dioxide emissions might be.”
The petition names the Ministry of Attorney General, Minister of Environment and Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. Neither Rio Tinto nor the B.C. government could not be immediately reached for comment.
Last July, the Environment Ministry released an independent, government-funded report that concluded with proper management Kitimat’s air, water, land and residents can handle prospective oil, gas and aluminum industry expansions in the area.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said then that as long as companies use world-leading emission standards, sulphur and nitrogen oxide levels will be significantly reduced and industrial expansion can be managed.
She said the report found low environmental impacts associated with nitrogen dioxide levels, but some increased levels of sulphur dioxide soil contamination and the potential danger of acidification in seven of the area’s more than 300 lakes.
SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, an environmental organization concerned about wild salmon, released a report in the fall of 2013 that estimated three proposed Kitimat liquefied natural gas plants will burn 2.5 times more natural gas than is consumed in Metro Vancouver annually.
Scientists and environmentalists have expressed concerns about the ability of emissions to disperse in the Kitimat area due to its location in a tunnel-like valley, near Douglas Channel, and off the north coast.