The Environmental Appeals Board has decided that Rio Tinto’s emissions permit, specifically in the allowances of sulphur dioxide (SO2) is allowed to stand.
The permit was the subject of a lengthy appeals process pressed forward by Kitimat residents Emily Toews and Lis Stannus.
The Board determined the emissions permit, which allows the SO2 emissions to rise from 27 tonnes a day to 42, could stand due to what it considered Rio Tinto’s comprehensive approach to providing information on the permit and the opportunity given to the public to comment on it.
Basically, the company followed all of their requirements to reach out to the public to receive their permit. Stannus said that there is disappointment that the emissions were ultimately approved by the appeals board but she does remain happy that the decision did come with nine recommendations mainly centered around health studies.
The recommendations include that the Environmental Management Act Director engage with the ministry of environment to encourage a provincially-led Kitimat area health study.
As well, if the province does undertake such a study that any of the findings be considered for any amendment to the environmental effects monitoring plan (EEM).
Stannus says the conditions relating to health speak to the concerns she and fellow appellant Toews had from the start.
“I’m happy about it,” said Stannus on the conditions in the decision.
“I’m hopeful the ministry of environment will adopt those recommendations.”
She’s particularly happy the conditions pertain directly to health issues.
“That’s what we were saying all along in the appeal, that the impacts on health needed further investigation,” she said.
“Unfortunately it [the conditions] was done after the permit. Which seems odd to me.”
She said it would be prudent to conduct health studies before issuing permits for things that could be harmful to people’s health.
She said she also remains concerned with statistics showing 12 per cent of Kitimat residents have a respiratory illness right now.
“I don’t think any increase is trivial when it has to do with health.”
As a school teacher she says she sees a lot of children with respiratory issues.
“I’m always going to wonder if that respiratory issue is a result of the increase,” she said.
“That’s always going to hang over me.”
The lawyer representing Toews, Richard Overstall, said the board’s ruling effectively endorsed the two main things the appellants were arguing against, the first being the close relationship that the provincial regulators have with the industries they’re supposed to be regulating.
That’s referring to Rio Tinto payments to the salary of a ministry employee tasked with reviewing the smelter’s emissions application under a secondment agreement.
He said it also endorses the practice which is being established through the permit of testing health effects on local residents.
“They also endorsed that it was okay to experiment with people’s health to see if, this case, air pollution is harmful or not,” he said, referring to recommendations for further health studies even with the permit’s approval.
He also finds it odd the board didn’t make orders relating to the health studies but rather made them as recommendations.
“Normally the board would either be silent on something like that or would make it an order,” he said, calling it “different,” and “strange,” that they didn’t.”
“If you think the health studies are important for people’s health then, in our view, you should order them,” he added.
No decision has been made as far as any possible appeals of the decision, however the option to do so is not off the table.
Mayor Phil Germuth said he was also disappointed that the government is not pushing to get the company to install scrubbers in their smelter, citing other countries have working scrubbers on their smelters.
Germuth places that disappointment at the feet of the provincial government.
You would think we [B.C.] should be setting an example globally in that not only do we promote industry and development but we also, within reason, do the very best to protect the health of our people and the environment,” he said.
He said his position isn’t to be at odds with Rio Tinto to which he’s thankful for their modernization project that has secured the smelting industry and the Kitimat community for years to come now.
Rather he says it’s the government’s role to act as a safeguard to potential health effects.
“The government is the one who sets the standard,” he said.
Other indirect concerns about SO2 also includes the potential of limiting industrial development in an airshed that has a finite amount of SO2 emissions, Germuth said.
Pointing to examples in Norway and Qatar which use scrubbers in their smelters.
“It is a disappointment that if these other countries are doing it why is B.C. not doing it?”
He said the provincial government should be offering incentive packages to industries to install these emission reducing technologies, which he says have been shown to be entirely safe for use in salt water environments.
Rio Tinto was not immediately available for comment on this ruling.