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Major changes ahead for Kitimat’s airshed

SO2 emissions addressed in a provincial government order
Engineers and Rio Tinto BC Works staff work to position the monitoring station on DoK property. (Photo Gerry Leibel)

Far-reaching changes to the monitoring of sulphur dioxide levels in the Kitimat airshed will be gradually phased in following the culmination of a mediation process between Rio Tinto, clean air crusaders Lis Stannus and Emily Toews, and Unifor Local 2301.

Speaking at the District of Kitimat council meeting on Monday, November 4, BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy (ENV) Director: Authorizations North director Ed Hoffman said the remedies resulting from the mediation process conducted by the BC Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) will significantly improve monitoring of air quality in the Kitimat airshed.

The changes to Rio Tinto BC Works’ permit and the company’s Environmental Effects Monitoring program (EEM), which determine the maximum permissible levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) BC Works is permitted to release into the air and how the SO2 levels are monitored, are contained in the EAB’s decision, along with a number of other instructions.

The publication of the EAB’s decisions on Friday, August 2, ended a nearly six-year campaign by Stannus and Toews, and later, Unifor Local 2301, to reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2) that residents in the district are exposed to.

Consent order

At the conclusion of the lengthy, mutually agreed-upon mediation process, the parties came to an agreement on July 25 this year, ending the appeals and resulting in a document that will have far-reaching implications for BC Works and Kitimat – the Consent Order.

The Consent Order stipulates changes to several clauses in Rio Tinto BC Work’s SO2 permit and the EEM program, specifically related to monitoring the impact of sulphur dioxide emissions on human health.

The amendments included aligning the interim Human Health Key Performance Indicator (KPI) contained in the permit with that of the one-hour provincial SO2 level – the KPI refers to SO2 levels in the airshed. A moderate reading would have been 36 to 75 parts per billion (ppb), high being 75 to 185 ppb and very high being greater than 185 ppb.

“The difference between the interim and provincial standard will be enforced by January 1, 2020. It will change from 75 ppb to 70 ppb, which is more restrictive and safer for the population,” said Hoffman.

Data from the three existing stations will be used to determine whether BC Works is adhering to the reduced KPI.

The parties also came to an agreement on the installation of a fourth air quality monitoring station in Kitimat. BC Works currently operates two monitoring stations in Kitimat (Whitesail and Riverlodge) and one in Kitamaat Village.

The installation of the fourth monitoring station, which was originally meant to be up and running by October 1, was delayed as a result of lease negotiations with CN, on whose property the station will be permanently situated.

Currently, the station is situated on District of Kitimat land in the Service Centre adjacent to the CN station, as per an agreement between BC Works and the DoK for temporary use of the land. The Consent Order stipulates that BC Works has to submit to provincial government “a draft comprehensive review of EEM Plan results from 2012 to 2018,” including the results from the air quality monitoring stations during that period.

BC Works will also have to post minutes and information from the Kitimat Public Advisory Committee (KPAC), which consists of members from a number of organizations, including the DoK, the Haisla Nation, the Kitimat Health Advocacy Group (KHAG), Kitimat Valley Naturalists, Kitimat Rod and Gun Club and Unifor.

KPAC is a forum that allows its members to directly address BC Works with concerns about air quality.

Most significantly, the Consent Order also paves the way for the establishment of the Kitimat Airshed Group, which will facilitate ongoing discussions among stakeholders, report to the provincial government on airshed management and protection, review air quality data and promote public awareness of air quality in the Kitimat airshed.

The reaction

Anthony Ho, from the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation which spearheaded the legal challenge to the amendment of the permit, said the Consent Order represents a significant victory for residents of the Kitimat-Terrace airshed.

He said the Consent Order provides for a more robust ambient air quality monitoring network in Kitimat.

“Before the amendment, even if the monitoring stations detect an exceedance, Rio Tinto didn’t have to do anything until it can be proven that the exceedance was causally linked to the smelter. This requirement is no longer there,” said Ho.

He said BC Works will from now on be required to shorten the time it takes to implement mitigation measures from upwards of seven years previously, to no longer than a year.

Lis Stannus said it was encouraging to see that the provincial government had finally recognized that citizens should have clean air regardless of where they live in B.C.

“The community has also clearly expressed the need for clean and healthy air in the places persons frequent to work, or engage in outdoor recreation,” said Stannus.

“We should now be able to move forward with greater confidence that measures are being put in place to protect citizens from sulphur dioxide pollution, and that in the future, local residents will be heard when it comes to the management of the Kitimat Valley airshed.”

Rio Tinto BC Works spokesperson Kevin Dobbin said the company welcomed the outcome of the mediation process.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the Ministry of Environment and community members to ensure air quality in Kitimat is comprehensively monitored,” said Dobbin.

“We are actively working to establish a new air monitoring station in Kitimat’s Service Centre and look forward to working with the BC Ministry of Environment on the formation of the Kitimat Airshed Group.”

He said BC Works will continue providing weekly air quality monitoring reports from the three residential air monitoring stations in the community, to key stakeholders and any member of the community.

Provincial government spokesperson Tyler Hooper said the establishment of the Kitimat Airshed Group to facilitate ongoing discussions among stakeholders, provide input to government officials on airshed management and protection, review air quality data on an ongoing basis, and promote public awareness of air quality in the Kitimat airshed.

“The parties also agreed to changes to Rio Tinto’s Environmental Management Act (EMA) permit and Environmental Effects Monitoring plan to ensure air quality is safe for the citizens of Kitimat.

“While this mediation settlement is specific to Rio Tinto’s EMA permit, outcomes from the process will be considered in EMA decision making processes for future industrial development in Kitimat.”


The protracted battle with Rio Tinto Alcan/BC Works began in 2013 when the BC Ministry of Environment’s director allowed for the company’s EEM to be amended to allow Rio Tinto Alcan to increase maximum permissible emission of sulphur dioxide from the smelter from 25 to 42 tonnes per day.

The increase in the emissions was necessary in order for the company to increase production following the completion of the multi-billion-dollar Kitimat Modernization Project. The company applied to have the EEM amended in February 2013.

Stannus, Toews and Unifor lodged separate appeals in November 2014 to have the provincial environment ministry director’s decision to allow for the increase in SO2 emissions overturned, marking the beginning of a protracted legal battle in the province’s highest courts.

Unifor Local 2301 launched its challenge to the increased SO2 and EEM, concerned that this would have health impacts for smelter employees.

Both appeals were overturned by the EAB in 2015, the board maintaining that the director’s decision to approve the changes to the allowable SO2 levels and the EEM was not appealable.

The parties decided to fight the matter in court, focussing on environmental and health monitoring perspectives and Canadian citizens’ rights to clean air. In 2017, they won in court, the BC Court of Appeal ruling that the director’s decision was in fact appealable.

Following the Appeal Court’s decision, Stannus, Toews and Unifor Local 2301 set about appealing the director’s decision to allow the increase in SO2. However, before the appeals could be heard, the EAB launched a mediation process to expedite a final solution.

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