Mayor Germuth wants Rio Tinto to put in scrubbers

He will be looking for backing from council in the new year

Crews at work at the fume treatment stack at the Rio Tinto smelter in July of 2015.                                Photo by Robin Rowland

Crews at work at the fume treatment stack at the Rio Tinto smelter in July of 2015. Photo by Robin Rowland

Mayor Phil Germuth is going to ask council to back a motion calling on Rio Tinto to install scrubbers at its Kitimat smelter.

To be introduced in January, the motion will formalize the District of Kitimat’s position that scrubbers using salt water to render sulphur dioxide (S02) safe by dissolving it in salt water and not have it enter the atmosphere as a gas in and around the area is the environmentally responsible thing to do, he said last week.

“We’re here blessed with salt water close by. Salt water turns S02 into sulphate which is a natural component of salt water with absolutely no environmental effect at all,” said Germuth.

Sulphate is a natural ingredient in seawater so that it is completely dissolved in seawater so that there is no waste product requiring disposal, said Germuth.

Norway and Qatar employ salt water scrubbers in their facilities and there’s no reason why that technology can’t be installed at Rio Tinto’s Kitimat smelter, said Germuth.

“I’ve been collecting information on this for years and am passing it to administration to put into a package for council,” added Germuth.

He said he saw no reason why council would not approve the motion, which will be used when the district holds discussions with Rio Tinto and senior governments regarding S02 emissions.

Germuth’s motion intention follows on a boisterous Dec. 18 Kitimat council meeting at which two provincial environment ministry officials from Victoria explained the plan to put in place a system that would alert Kitimat residents should S02 emission levels reach the point of affecting, especially people with asthmatic conditions and other sensitive population groups such as children and the elderly.

Those emissions are currently monitored at four locations in and around Kitimat and Kitamaat Village and reports are issued weekly by Rio Tinto and are available online.

The new alert system, which the ministry wants in place as of Jan. 1, 2018, follows on a recommendation of the provincial Environmental Appeal Board which conducted lengthy hearings in 2015 regarding Rio Tinto’s emissions proposal.

But Germuth and council members told the two environment ministry officials they took exception to the emissions being allowed in the first place.

“It’s like ‘we’re going to allow this stuff to be dumped all over us and we’ll then see what happens,’” Germuth said in a follow-up interview.

He likened the approval of emissions and their subsequent monitoring and soon-to-be-introduced alert system as a “science experiment” conducted on Kitimat area residents.

“If this was done properly in the first place, we wouldn’t need to be doing this,” Germuth said.

“We call this Beautiful B.C. and where we live is beautiful. We are blessed with salt water right close to us so I cannot see why scrubbers weren’t required,” he added.

The appearance by the two environment ministry officials and the plans for an alert system triggered a debate of emissions vs. scrubbers going back to 2013 when Alcan (now Rio Tinto) was issued a permit to increase S02 emission levels as part of the multi-billion modernization of its Kitimat smelter.

The new smelter produces more aluminum than its predecessor and subsequently more S02, from 27 tonnes a day to 42 tonnes a day.

At the time Alcan said its new aluminum smelting technology, even with an increase in S02 emissions, would result in overall health benefits for its workers and Kitimat/Kitamaat Village residents.

Particulate release would be reduced by 80 per cent, fluoride emissions by 72 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 36 per cent, Alcan indicated at the time.

Alcan acknowledged that saltwater scrubbers, carrying a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars, were an option.

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 500,000 tonnes a year was cited by Premier John Horgan in October when he visited the smelter as part of a celebration of its first year of production.

The permit issued to Alcan became the subject of an appeal to the provincial Environmental Appeal Board by Kitimat and Terrace residents and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.

It subsequently upheld the permit provisions in a decision released in late 2015.

Also involved in the legal battle surrounding the permit issued Alcan is Unifor Local 2301, the union representing Rio Tinto’s smelter workers.

It is currently appealing the permit before the Environmental Appeal Board after winning a court decision allowing it to do so.

S02 emissions also drew the attention of the Northern Health Authority at the time with its senior medical health officer, Dr. David Bowering, now retired, recommending that scrubbers be installed to minimize the risk to the area’s airshed.

One of his recommendations called for the permit to contain a “trigger” to cut emissions through a reduction in production or by other measures should the technical assessment of the emissions plan be found to have underestimated the risk to the population.

Although critical of S02 being released into the air, Germuth said he supported the smelter modernization program and acknowledged that the new technology has reduced the number of other pollutants being generated.

“But really, it’s the Ministry of the Environment that’s supposed to be in charge of the public health and to protect the environment,” he said. “And salt water scrubbers are the perfect way to do that.”

Meanwhile, the environment ministry is pressing ahead with its emissions alert plan and is looking to incorporate as many ways as possible of letting people know when S02 levels rise.

One of those ways is to use the existing system of text messaging, email and social media which distributes boil water notices and flood warnings, the ministry indicated in a statement following the Dec. 18 council meeting.

In response to the discussions held at the council meeting, a Rio Tinto statement sent to the Sentinel says SO2 levels in Kitimat are still significantly lower than the B.C. air quality objective, the province having among the strictest regulations in Canada.

“A comprehensive monitoring program is in place and readings are averaging less than one part per billion of SO2 at the residential stations – this equates to approximately 20 per cent of the B.C. air quality objective,” reads the statement.

“The decision to use high velocity, high temperature and high stack air dispersion of SO2 from the smelter was guided by 18 months of research and modelling by world-renowned experts on this subject.

“We remain confident this is the best choice for the health of our employees and the surrounding community, and to minimize impacts on the surrounding environment.

“BC Works provides weekly air quality reports to key stakeholders and interested community members. We support the introduction of an SO2 alert system for the local community to provide extra confidence and we will whole-heartedly support the development of an Air Quality Health Index for Kitimat and the surrounding region.”

The written version of this story appearing in the Dec. 28, 2017 edition of The Northern Sentinel contained incorrect information which has now been corrected in this story. The Northern Sentinel regrets the error.