SO2 scrubbers needed, not asthma health studies

Jobs and development don’t have to come at the cost of making us sick.

Dear Editor,

The Kitimat Terrace Clean Air Coalition is an independent group of citizens who are advocates for clean air.

One of our key concerns at the moment is the permission Rio Tinto (RT) received to nearly double its emissions of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) from its Kitimat Smelter to just over 40 metric tonnes per day.

Some of our members were directly involved in appealing the permit that RT was given to allow this increase.

One of us was the Chief Medical Health Officer for Northern Health at the time when the permit was being considered.

None of us believe that the process so far has adequately protected the health of people in the air shed; rather, we can see from the beginning how the process has been stage managed by RT and its consultants in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment (MOE).

Public information sessions were hosted by them prior to and after the permit was issued. Staff from the MOE were seconded to and paid by RT during the permitting discussions, and the recommendation by Northern Health that the permit should include a requirement to install scrubbers to reduce SO2emissions to the lowest achievable level was ignored.

The current public consultation structure, the Kitimat Public Advisory Committee (KPAC), is also hosted and managed by RT/MOE, which ensures that there is a strong process bias toward the interests and needs of RT and away from a precautionary and prudent approach to protecting the health of the environment and the people exposed to emitted SO2 in this air shed.

We believe RT should comply with world standards for aluminum smelting and install the necessary scrubbing technology to reduce SO2 emissions to the lowest achievable level. It is assumed, but not stated, that if a health study demonstrated that the increased SO2 emissions were causing harm to human health, the company would be obligated to take action and reduce their emissions.

This means that any study would have to be done with clear commitments from RT/MOE in relation to outcomes and actions. This is likely going to be difficult if not impossible.

There is a high probability in our minds that any study that RT would agree to would be so fraught with methodological caveats as to ensure no clear or actionable outcomes are achieved.

The main problems are the low population numbers in the region, the many other things other than SO2 that impact respiratory and cardiovascular health and so potentially confound any findings, and the political and privacy sensitivities around any study of this kind with the potential to impact someone’s bottom line.

Polluting first and asking the health questions later, as is being proposed, shifts the risk away from the polluter and on to the population who now are assuming that risk directly in relation to their health and the personal and public costs of health care, literally with every breath they take.

We live in a region where resource development is important and necessary for our well-being. Proponents and governments often say that the environment, health, and resource development are compatible and even mutually supportive.

Clean air is fundamental to the health of the environment and to good human health. Clean air itself should be viewed as an extremely valuable and even priceless resource.

Here in the Kitimat-Terrace corridor, we have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate by action that jobs and development, even on a large scale, don’t have to come at the cost of making us sick.

Kitimat Terrace Clean Air Coalition

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