Rio Tinto Alcan is in a dispute with local residents, as well as in court with Canada’s largest labour union, Unifor, over its refusal to install sulphur dioxide (SO2) scrubbers in its new Kitimat smelter.
According to the World Health Organization, SO2 is linked to increased rates of heart attacks, stroke, cancer, premature births and asthma attacks, and those impacts increase with increased levels of SO2. This poisonous gas also reacts with air and moisture and forms acid rain.
These impacts are the reason Rio Tinto Alcan needs a permit from the provincial government to release more of this toxin.
Scrubbing is a well-known and reliable industrial process that can remove almost all of the SO2 from Rio Tinto’s new smelter. Twelve aluminum smelters around the world use it. Yet Rio Tinto Alcan refuses. They know it’s the right thing to do as they have built the infrastructure to install scrubbers in the new plant in case they are required to do so.
Rio Tinto Alcan states it is safer to release SO2 into the air then scrub it using seawater, citing concerns over environmental impacts to Douglas Channel.
In reality, without scrubbers SO2 is a poison released into our air, with scrubbers SO2 reacts with seawater to form a salt, sulphate, which is already in high concentrations in the ocean and has no environmental impacts.
Rio Tinto Alcan also cites the fact that the other toxins and pollutants associated with smelting will be reduced in the new smelter. While Rio Tinto has every reason to be proud they are reducing those pollutants, it should not, and cannot, use that as a justification for not doing the right and responsible thing.
The new smelter’s SO2 emissions into the Terrace/Kitimat airshed will roughly double from current levels to 42 tons a day. How much SO2 is that? It’s around 30 million pounds a year, or 1,500 dump truckloads annually. Over 60 years its almost 2 billion pounds, or 92,000 dump truck loads.
According to Rio Tinto Alcan’s own studies, especially vulnerable to increased SO2 emissions are youngsters with asthma and elderly people with breathing issues. Rio Tinto calls these impacts “blocked airway events.”
The Canadian Medical Association estimates that 21,000 Canadians die each year from air pollution, and it costs our economy and health care system $10 billion dollars to deal with air pollution.
Why the refusal? It’s money. Rio Tinto Alcan has a job to do – make aluminum, and make profits for shareholders. That’s as it should be, it’s what companies do. And we recognize it’s a balancing act for corporations at times, that doing business as responsibly as possible can cost a lot of money, and SO2 scrubbers aren’t cheap. Rio Tinto has said the cost could be as high as $200 million.
Can Rio Tinto afford it? In 2014 alone Rio Tinto had profits of $9.3 billion. So the cost of protecting our air quality for the next 60 years, literally helping our children and our elders to breathe, and making thousands of lives better, represents about eight days of profit in one year.
The relationship between the smelter in Kitimat and B.C. and our communities, has always been a partnership – we gave Alcan thousands of square kilometres of land, and an immense amount of pure clean water from the headwaters of one of the earth’s great salmon rivers, the Fraser.
That water creates some of the cheapest hydropower in the world, and it will be the foundation of the Kitimat smelter’s future profitability of many more billions of dollars. In turn we got investment and jobs.
Our ask to Rio Tinto is for the health of our families, and our children, and their children. Rio Tinto – please make this new smelter truly world class and state of the art. Install the scrubbers. Do the right thing.
It is a reasonable ask, and it would be a responsible choice on their part. Fighting local citizens in court is not responsible corporate behavior in 2015, and doing so could adversely impact Rio Tinto’s relationship with us for a long, long time.
Greg Knox is the executive director for the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust headquartered in Terrace, B.C.