After concerns were raised over Rio Tinto Alcan’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions allegedly causing respiratory issues with residents of Kitimat in early April, the company responded last week.
In consulting their data from the company’s five monitoring stations (four in Kitimat and one in Terrace), which relays the air quality and SO2 emissions in the area, Rio Tinto found that the smelter’s production of emissions were found to be “low and steady”.
“We haven’t seen any abnormal emissions in the month of March…[The levels] are significantly below the guidelines and that’s with the new smelter up and running. In fact, they have been lower than the old smelter, so it’s significantly lower,” said Rio Tinto’s principal advisor community and social performance for BC Operations Kevin Dobbin last week, who added that the information used by the company is also utilized by the B.C. Ministry of Environment.
Dobbin explained that in March, when Rio Tinto reached its milestone modernization project completion, involving the installation of Aluminum Pechiney (AP) technology which boasts higher energy efficiency, digital monitors and computer control systems, the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in aluminum production in the world, better cleaning systems and material recovery to maximize recycling opportunities according to Rio Tinto’s website, there were no abnormal readings in residential areas.
“In fact, the readings at the Riverlodge, which is the closest residential area to the plant, emission levels were at 10 parts per billion (PPB) or lower, which is significantly under the provincial guideline,” said Dobbin.
Calls for scrubbers to be used in the facility, which involves a wet scrubber using water to absorb the SO2 and a reagent neutralizing the formed sulphurous acid in the water, were addressed by the advisor, who said that when the permit was granted to the company by the Ministry of Environment, an appeal arose last year which requested Rio Tinto implement scrubbers.
The appeal board upheld the permits and dismissed the scrubber suggestion.
“When we were doing work toward the new smelter we looked at all the different options to address SO2. Our overall environmental impact is reducing by 50 per cent, even with the increase of SO2, everything is being reduced by 50 per cent, so it’s a huge mind shift. It’s a big change in the smelter operation and the impact to the environment,” said Dobbin.
“We looked at all the different options; one was wet scrubbers using ocean water, one was dry scrubbers and one was air emissions and dispersion. The experts in the field found that the air emissions was the best option to go with. In addition to that we developed the environmental effects monitoring program which will measure those emissions to ensure it was the right decision and right now, as of March it’s looking very good. We believe, and the data is showing, that it has been the right decision so far.”
Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth criticized the provincial government last week, saying that scrubbers should have been implemented along with the permit.
“My position is clearly the technology of salt water scrubbers really should have been installed from the beginning, but we have no criticism to Rio Tinto over that. We’re very thankful that they built the new smelter and invested $5 billion in the community, but the protection of human health and the protection of the environment is not industry’s responsibility, it’s our provincial government’s responsibility,” said Mayor Germuth.
“[The scrubbers] work excellent. They remove over 98 per cent of the SO2 and have no negative effects on the environment. B.C. or Canada should be setting an example for the world. While we promote industry and pro-business, we also need to make sure we protect our human health and the environment to the best of our ability and using the best technology.”
The mayor added that by not having SO2 scrubbers, it may prevent other industries from wanting to come to Kitimat as the airshed might have too much SO2 in it already and that Rio Tinto wouldn’t need the monitoring stations if scrubbers can eliminate the problem from the beginning.
Dobbin said that the company is looking to start developing weekly data reports with detailed graphs and explainations for public consumption coming from the Ministry of Environment.
“We obviously are concerned and empathetic to the community’s concerns and questions over emissions and SO2, so it’s a very complicated issue and complex – the information that’s out there and how to get the data is complicated,” he said.
Dobbin added that if any community members have questions or concerns, they can always visit Rio Tinto’s community office at
254 Upper City Centre Mall, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-632-4712.