RIO TINTO ALCAN is defending plans to increase sulphur dioxide air emissions from its new Kitimat aluminum smelter, saying other emissions being produced by its current smelter will be drastically reduced when the new one begins operations late next year.
The increase in S02 combined with the decrease in other emissions is a risk more than outweighed by the environmental and economic benefits the new smelter will bring, company official Colleen Nyce said last week.
She made the comments in response to plans by local individuals and groups to appeal the provincial environment ministry’s approval of the increase in S02 emissions.
Nyce conceded that S02 emissions will increase by 56 per cent but that particulates will be decreased by 80 per cent, fluoride emissions will decrease by 72 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions will decrease by 36 per cent.
“That’s a decrease of 500,000 tonnes a year [in greenhouse gas emissions],” she added.
Along with a greenhouse gas emission reduction, Nyce said the rebuilt smelter, a project worth close to $3.5 billion, will solidify the company’s economic impact in the region for decades.
Nyce said S02 is a byproduct of aluminum smelting and that the increase in emissions will come about because the new smelter will produce more product than the current one.
“There’s no way around that. If you increase aluminum production you will increase S02. But the overall health benefits for our workers and of the community will increase.”
The appellants, which include local businessman and food grower Charles Claus and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, are calling for the installation of scrubbers to collect S02 before it is released into the air.
“Investing in scrubbers would not only protect our health and environment, it would also make Rio Tinto Alcan a world leader in sustainability,” said Claus.
He and other appellants say the increase in S02 will affect the health of people in the area.
Nyce said the company did consider collecting S02 with technology that would use seawater but that it doubted people would accept having it then released back into the ocean.
“The only proven technology is using seawater but that would mean 25,000 cubic metres released per hour and based on that, we decided air dispersal is the preferred method,” she said.
Nyce added that a team of scientists studied air quality, atmospheric patterns and other factors in developing a model of the impact of increased S02 air emissions.
The conclusion was that dispersal by air was “the least of the risks” and have minimal acidic impacts on water sources, she said.
Nyce did not have a readily available cost of installing scrubbers but said it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
And she did say there is provision being made for the installation of seawater scrubbers should they ever be required.
Seawater scrubbing is the preferred method of dealing with S02 by the groups and individuals appealing the environment ministry decision allowing Rio Tinto Alcan to discharge into the atmosphere.
“That’s what their own expert told us and that’s what our research has shown …. that it’s the most viable and safe option,” said Greg Knox from SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
“So if it’s the best way, why aren’t they doing it? It’s confusing.”
Rio Tinto Alcan has challenged the standing of the groups and individuals in appealing the S02 permit given by the environment ministry.
A decision on that challenge is to come soon from the provincial environmental appeal board.
And based on that decision, hearings could be held early in the new year, said Knox.
Nyce said it’s common practice to challenge the standing of groups and individuals who want to appeal the granting of environmental and other permits, especially if there is a large number of each involved.
“We would like to focus on the issue, not on broad policy and we do expect there will be a hearing,” she said.
“We feel badly we do have to be in an appeal process. It takes time, energy and money,” Nyce added.
As it is, Nyce said the company did ask the groups and individuals for a meeting but that they declined.
Knox said the groups and individuals did meet with Rio Tinto and its experts but that Nyce was referring to a Rio Tinto request made after the company had challenged their standing.
“At that point, our lawyers were involved and we declined and said they would have to speak with our lawyers.”