Appeal hearings for RTA emissions continue in Kitimat

Hearings for the appeal of RTA's emissions permit for the new smelter continue to June 12.

Environmental Appeal Board hearings into Rio Tinto Alcan’s permit to increase sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from their aluminum smelter resumed at the Kitimat Rod and Gun Club. The hearings, taking place June 1-5 and June 8-12, mark the second half of the 20-day appeal that was previously held in Victoria.

Kitimat residents Emily Toews and Lis Stannus are appealing RTA’s permit, granted by the Ministry of Environment (MOE), to increase SO2 emissions from 27 tonnes per day to 42 tonnes per day – a 55 per cent increase – after the Kitimat Modernization Project is completed.

The appellants, Toews and Stannus, maintain that they are in favour of the modernization project, but are concerned about health and environmental damage that could be caused by releasing a high magnitude of SO2without any emission reduction technologies, mainly scrubbers, being employed.

RTA maintains that the proper research procedures were followed when the permit was issued and that there is no present reason to use precautionary measures to reduce emissions.

The Kitimat hearings saw Toews testify as to the adverse health effects she believe she will experience if RTA raises their SO2 emissions.

Toews suffers from asthma and left the lower mainland because the pollution levels were aggravating her condition, something that she believes will happen again if 42 tonnes of SO2 emissions are released from the RTA smelter each day.

After Toews took the stand, Ian Sharpe, the Delegate of the Director under the Environmental Management Act, testified as to why he approved the application to increase the SO2 emissions limit. Sharpe emphasized that science has yet to determine if there is a link between SO2 emissions and adverse health effects.

For what remains of the last two weeks of the hearings, six Rio Tinto Alcan experts will be testifying as to how they came to their scientific conclusions on the environmental and human health effects that played a role in the ministry’s decision to approve the permit.

The appeal began in 2013, shortly after the permit to increase SO2 emissions was approved by the Ministry of the Environment. Toews and Stannus, both elementary school teachers in Kitimat, sought counsel after they became concerned for their own health and the health of their students.

Lawyers Richard Overstall, counsel for Emily Toews, and Chris Tollefson, counsel for Lis Stannus, are advancing a multi-faceted case against the decision to approve the permit.

The Ministry of Environment has failed in its duty to independently assess this project,” Tollefson was quoted as saying in a press release by the Northwest Institute of Biological Research at the beginning of the appeal.

[The MOE] seems to be more committed to meeting RTA’s needs, and this reveals a systemic problem.”

On the scientific front, experts from across Canada provided testimony to the appeal board in Victoria as to the evidence that SO2 emissions can be harmful to the environment.

There is evidence to suggest that SO2 emissions can cause acid rain which effects the soil and can be harmful to vegetation, according to Richard Overstall.

The appellants are also arguing that the scientific uncertainty on adverse health effects caused by SO2emissions merits a precautionary approach. Overstall says that they are putting forward an argument that emissions can exacerbate diseases such as asthma and can also cause people to develop such diseases.

More controversially, they are also claiming that there is evidence to support the possibility that SO2 emissions may lead to premature death.

RTA and the ministry experts argue that science has not established that there is a link between SO2emissions and health risks and that they have taken the appropriate, “adaptive” approach to mitigating any potential effects of the emissions.

We are advancing an argument that Ian Sharpe [and the MOE] didn’t consider all of the scientific evidence when he approved the permit,” explained Overstall, stating that if all the evidence had been considered, it would have merited the use of emission reduction technologies.

Overstall continued that they are also advancing two legal arguments. The first is regarding a MOE employee Fraser Mackenzie.

The appellants are alleging that there was an apprehension of bias inclining Mackenzie to make a decision in favour of RTA because RTA was paying his salary at the time.

Counsel also alleges that the Memorandum of Understanding between RTA and Ian Sharpe “illegally confined the director’s [Sharpe’s] decision,” according to Overstall.

Counsel for the appellants claim that there was an understanding between the two parties that they would find a way to make the increase in SO2 emissions work.

Over the last week of the appeal, RTA will then have the opportunity to make their case. Six RTA employees who wrote the SO2 Technical Assessment Repot (STAR) that the MOE utilized in their  decision-making process will take the stand to defend their process and their science. Finally, general manager of the BC Operations of Rio Tinto Alcan Gaby Poirier will testify for RTA’s part in having the permit approved.

Poireir stands by the permit and said that all plans are in place to increase production levels by February 2016. As for the elevated levels of SO2 Poirier says that the company only plans to be releasing 33 to 35 tonnes of SO2 per day when production increases and that they don’t plan to reach the 42 tonnes per day limit.

The modernization will reduce emissions overall by 50 per cent and this will make a world of difference,” he added.

Poirier also outlined why the company chose to go with the air dispersal method of dealing with SO2 emissions. He said that dry scrubbing would generate two tonnes of waste for every tonne of SO2 it scrubs.

Similarly, wet scrubbing would use tens of thousands of tonnes of water to scrub the SO2.

Air dispersal is still the best option,” Poirier explained. “This is why we are confident we have made the right choice.” He declined to comment on the possibility of installing scrubbers, only saying that it could take years.

Cécile Favron