One of the issues which has been cropping up in both of the sites for the hearings, in Kitimat and in Victoria, is how Rio Tinto Alcan was paying for the secondment of the Ministry of the Environment's Senior Official, Frazer McKenzie. Read an article about it by Carol Linnitt on Desmog Canada by clicking this sentence.
Appellant Emily Toews took the stand on Monday, June 1st at hearings conducted by the Environmental Appeal Board concerning Rio Tinto Alcan’s permit to increase their Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) limit. The hearings have been running from 8:30 am until just after 5:00 pm.
“Our clients are concerned about the levels of Sulphur Dioxide from the Kitimat Modernization Project here in Kitimat and they’re specifically concerned with the effects of this increased Sulphur Dioxide on their own health and the health of their family and the other members of the community. They are also concerned about the effects of Sulphur Dioxide on their environment, on the soil and water and the trees,” said Richard Overstall, council for the Appellant.
Toews explained she participated in many activities locally as a child. When she was a teenager, she was diagnosed with asthma. This affected her active lifestyle. When she moved to Burnaby to attend university, she found her asthma was difficult to control.
When she completed her courses in 2007, she moved to Williams Lake and Kitimat in 2009. She told the panel she decided to stay in Kitimat because, despite the modernization of Rio Tinto Alcan, she had been told they were going to reduce their air emissions. She was also working to gain control of her allergies.
Toews stated she is an active member of the community, teaching kindergarten and dance, as well as being active hiking, fishing, exploring and swimming. She told the panel what her symptoms are and how she works to prevent them, often staying home from work if she is having trouble breathing. An air purifier helps her in the home and she takes allergy medication.
A teacher at Kildala Elementary School, she informed the panel the school is the closest in Kitimat to Alcan and there are students who have respiratory illnesses who attend. Often, she has to remind students to take their medication before going outside.
However, when she learned about the Sulphur Dioxide Emissions being higher than she was aware, Toews was unable to attend any of the information sessions. While she knew of only three sessions, one of these sessions took place at a time when she would be employed. The other two, she learned of after the fact.
While being cross examined, Toews explained she did read mail outs which came to her in the mail as well as articles in the newspaper. She was unable to read the STAR Report on the emissions, because it is not her expertise and it was released at a time when she was concerned with other responsibilities.
She expressed she is concerned about her health, the health of her family and the health of the students she teaches. She is not opposed to the modernization but she is opposed to the increase in the sulphur dioxide emissions.
Following Toews was Ian Sharpe, a Director to the Delegate with the Ministry of Environment and the person who issued the permit. He had a number of big thick binders full of reports to speak to and would be on the stand until Thursday. He described his work history with the Ministry and other prior employers.
He went through a number of criteria for the study, specifying that the information for the study had to be scientifically based, but the Ministry of Environment would be looking at a number of factors to determine what the impact of increased SO2 emissions would be on the soil, water, vegetation and human health. The lawyers for the Appellants tried to ascertain if he had sufficient scientific information.
Among the first documents upon which he was questioned were two memorandums of understanding between Rio Tinto Alcan and the Ministry of Environment. He explained the main difference between the two documents was a change to a date following a delay in the Modernization Project. This was due to a decline in the economy. The purpose of the Memorandum of Understanding was to put the Board of Rio Tinto Alcan at ease, fulfilling one of the three requirements for the project to go before the Board for approval.
However, Sharpe testified he had to inform one of the higher ups at Rio Tinto Alcan that the Memorandum of Understanding was not a permit approving the SO2 increase.
In a report prepared for Rio Tinto Alcan by the ESSA, environmental management company, analysts predicted the number of incidents of asthma triggered by the SO2 increase would be around 150 to 200 incidents per year in active people and 50-500 incidents in the population as a whole. He stated this prediction was 1% higher than the alternative, a Kitimat with no aluminium smelter at all.
Sharpe was asked about the effect SO2 emissions would have on human health. He expressed he was not an expert on the issue but he had talked to people who were. It was suggested by the Lawyers for the appellants that the emissions could cause respiratory illnesses in people. Sharpe replied this was a null hypothesis, when there is not enough evidence to support one conclusion, or the other, but the increased SO2 could cause problems in people who already had respiratory illnesses.
He expressed there was enough information on human health, so the Ministry of Environment was satisfied the report produced by ESSA, called the Sulphur Dioxide Technical Assessment Report (STAR). They focused their studies on amphibians, mushrooms and lichens. Sharpe stated this would add to the scientific knowledge on how the SO2 would affect those three. Sharpe said the STAR report was able to show there will not be unacceptable effects on their ecosystems.
However, one of the known issues Sharpe explained was the computer modeling program they used for the STAR Report over predicted the amount of S02, 200% higher than what was shown at their stations. “This is common, whenever you do ambient air quality monitoring. You will have these kinds of artifacts that you must deal with, when interpreting the information,” said Sharpe. “I took the Star document at face value.”
Sharpe concluded the environment would be protected, although Environmental Effects Monitoring program which provided terms of reference for the proponent, Rio Tinto Alcan. Sharpe said there would be an annual review to help improve the program over time and new elements would be added to it. Trends need to be followed to determine what actions are required to stay within the bounds of what is acceptable. This would also aid decision making in the future.
Sharpe stated the data which was being gathered in the Kitimat Valley could be used to take a retrospective look at Kitimat health sometime in the future. He argued with all the conversations which he had with health experts, there is no residual uncertainty on the effect of SO2 on human health.
He added there are things in the environment which people do not understand, like climate change. By monitoring how the environment is changing, it would be easier to understand how these changes will affect the SO2 discharge.
Sharpe explained it was not unusual for this kind of approach on an air shed basis, which he called adaptive management, and there were many groups that record data while working with environmentalists and industries. If three years of data gathered shows the company is getting close to an unsafe fail, which is an unsafe release of SO2, Alcan might have to take steps to reduce their emissions, such as implementing scrubbers in various parts of the plant.
He said it was possible that SO2 emissions could increase faster than predicted. He expressed having an ongoing data stream would be good to have for future decision making, possibly relating to climate change and other unpredictable cycles.
The appellant’s lawyers were concerned with this form of environmental response. “Rather than the province regulating the Sulphur Dioxide Emissions, what they’re doing is allowing them to proceed and then seeing if something happens to people’s health; monitoring the environment, seeing if something happens in the environment and what our clients have instructed us, they don’t want to be guinea pigs in this process and they don’t want their environment to be guinea pigs,” said Overstall after Tuesday’s hearing.
Sharpe pointed out there were ways to reduce the emissions. By reducing the amount of sulphur in the coke, Rio Tinto could reduce the amount of SO2 by 1 -15 tonnes per day. Using low sulphur anodes, Rio Tinto Alcan could reduce the amount of SO2 by up to 20 tonnes per day.
Adding a scrubber onto one of their facilities could reduce the amount of SO2 by 14 tonnes per day. If two were employed, it could reduce up to 29 tonnes per day. Sharpe said some of these options could be implemented quickly and there were plenty of options to reduce emissions which could be explored. If these mitigate the impacts, they are viable contingencies and Rio Tinto Alcan committed to design the smelter to employ the scrubbers should the decision be made against 42 tonnes a day, no matter the cost.
He explained a Rio Tinto Alcan employee suggested the SO2 could be reduced by scrubbers and this ended with Rio Tinto Alcan having to make room to install the scrubbers at a later date, should they be required.
However, Sharpe argued he does not believe this to be true, because there are other contaminants from the smelting of aluminium which might find their way into the mix. Another problem is the sea water would have to be tempered because it would be too hot to mix with water from the Douglas Channel.
He also added there would need to be a Federal review concerning the dumping of this material into fish bearing waters. He stated in the past, this type of study would take a while to complete, however, due to collaboration with the Provincial Government, Federal studies were becoming more efficient. Finally, he explained a large volume of water would need to be used for scrubbing. He said dry scrubbing would not need a Federal permit.
According to Gaby Poirier, General Manager for Rio Tinto Alcan’s BC Operations, the reason they decided to go against installing scrubbers was because they felt they would have an impact on the environment. In the current smelter, the emissions are low to the ground. The modernized Smelter will capture all the gas from the pots and filter it into the air which will disperse it. They are reducing the remaining emissions by 50%.
“Health, safety and environment is our first priority. It is our top priority,” said Poirier. “We did 18 months of extended study with 3rd party experts. The best solution for us was to deal with the SO2 through air dispersion.”
He expressed air dispersion will have the least impact on the environment. Dry Scrubbing generates two tonnes of landfill waste for every tonne of SO2 scrubbed. Wet scrubbing will remove 42,000 tonnes of water from the Douglas Channel for every tonne of SO2. He said the impact to the Douglas Channel is not clear.
The lawyers for the appellant stated there was misinformation put out at one of the consultation meetings. The misinformation was that the seawater scrubbing technology harmed the environment. According to the Hatch report, it was benign.
Sharpe stated if there was a Federal review and the Federal Government declined wet scrubbers, Rio Tinto Alcan would have to look into other options for scrubbing or reducing emissions. Sharpe expressed there were other processes and sea water scrubbing was not the only option.
One of the questions Sharpe was asked was if the cumulative effects of other projects were looked at. Sharpe replied they were not. He said there was the possibility of four LNG projects and an oil refinery which are proposed for Kitimat.
However he argued none of these projects were foreseeable at the time the permit was being decided. The reason these projects were unlikely was because none of them had reached the stage where they were looking for an environmental assessment, with the exception of Kitimat LNG and they had a permit to import LNG, not export it.
He added none of them were close to a final investment decision and, even today, none of them have reached that stage. Finally, it was impossible for them to use emissions data which did not exist from these proposed projects at the time the SO2 emissions were being looked at. The refinery had exactly the same problems as the LNG.
Under cross-examination, there were a number of questions which Sharpe was unable to answer. One such question was why Rio Tinto Alcan had an opt out clause in one of the contracts and the BC Government did not.
Another question was why the Health Authorities were not asked to be a part of one of the reports until there were only a few days left before the permit was issued. There was study of human health impacts by the health authorities in the STAR Report.
Sharpe explained the Health Authorities are extremely busy and have more work than they have people to do it. He said he was more interested in their review of the report. Northern Health would write in recommended a proactive approach to minimize SO2 emissions after being asked.
The panel will be able to revoke the decision made by the Director’s Delegate, Ian Sharpe. The appellants are asking the panel to impose a restriction so the emissions are reduced, preferably through scrubbers and a rigorous health study.
One of the questions which the panel asked was why Sharpe did not increase the public consultation period despite being asked by six different groups in Terrace. He explained the Ministry of Environment listened to comments and concerns up to the day of the permit decision and the time limit was adequate.
Similarly, he was asked why the public was not informed existence of a second Hatch Report which would highlight the feasibility for Scrubbers for SO2 Emissions. Sharpe replied he considered it but chose not to. His explanation why was because Rio Tinto Alcan ‘changed it’s tune’ by stopping information which could cast doubt on scrubbers.
Sharpe concluded his time on the stand on Thursday Morning, June 4th.