TWO Kitimat residents are questioning the payment by Rio Tinto Alcan of the salary of a provincial environment employee involved in issuing permits for the company’s $4.3 billion Kitimat aluminum smelter modernization project.
Lis Stannus and Emily Toews are appealing the granting of a permit allowing the company to increase its sulphur dioxide emissions as part of the modernization work and now argue, in documents filed with provincial Environmental Appeal Board (EAB), that “the decision under appeal is invalid due to a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
The two are requesting documents relating to what’s called a secondment agreement whereby Rio Tinto Alcan paid the salary of environment ministry staffer Frazer McKenzie for two years while he worked the ministry’s assessment of the project.
Rio Tinto Alcan is saying there is no bias and has filed its position with the EAB.
Company official Colleen Nyce said secondment agreements such as the one for McKenzie are not out of the ordinary when it comes to assessing and permitting large industrial projects.
“Secondment agreements are a practice between industry and government in British Columbia as a way for major projects that require significant time and attention to the hundreds of permits required,” said Nyce.
With more than 300 permits needed and the complications of planning a large project, Nyce said “the BC Ministry of Environment was not able to provide such a dedicated resource” and so benefitted from the Rio Tinto Alcan payments.
As for the secondment of McKenzie, Nyce said he was not involved in the decision making process.
“The ministry resource assigned through the secondment agreement provided technical expertise to Rio Tinto Alcan and acted in an independent regulatory role on the project,” she said.
For its part, the environment ministry said it no longer enters into secondment agreements whereby a staffer’s salary is paid by a company.
“In the past, the ministry has, on very rare occasions, used some funding from a private company to fund a position or part of a position in order to dedicate staff time to a particular file or to help offset with other work while other ministry staff are dedicated to a particular file,” the ministry statement added.
The emissions permit being appealed by the Kitimat residents, who say they are worried about overall health and environmental impacts, will allow Rio Tinto Alcan to increase sulphur dioxide air emissions from the current 27 tonnes per day from the old smelter to 42 tonnes per day from the stacks of the new smelter.
Rio Tinto Alcan does acknowledge sulphur dioxide emissions will increase because the new smelter will produce more aluminum than the old smelter, but also says other emissions are being reduced for an overall benefit to the environment.
An alternate method, that of installing “scrubbers” to use seawater to collect sulphur dioxide and then deposit it into the ocean, was rejected by the company because it said it doubted area residents would approve.
Scrubbers would also cost more, with some estimates placing the price tag upwards of $200 million.
The addition of the bias claim, accompanied by the request for more documents, by the Kitimat residents has delayed what was to be a one-month permit appeal hearing this fall before the EAB.
That hearing is now scheduled to take place in December and January in both Kitimat and Victoria.
Meanwhile, two Terrace residents, Linda Gagné and Charles Claus, continue to seek through the courts to be part of the permit appeal.
They were rejected standing by the EAB because it said they were outside of the major impact area of Kitimat air emissions.