Disappointing dismissal by environmental board

"They too believe that the onus should be on people to prove harm rather than on the company to prove safety."

Emissions stack at modernized Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

Dear Sir:

On December 23, 2015 the provincial Environmental Appeal Board quietly released its decision in relation to the appeal of Rio Tinto Alcan’s pollution permit for a near doubling of S02 emissions into the Kitimat/Terrace air shed connected to the modernization of its Kitimat aluminum smelter.

The board dismissed the appeal and found in favour of Rio Tinto which had gone to great lengths to build a case touting taller smoke stacks, air dispersion modeling, and a lack of hard proof that expected ambient levels of S02 would do much more than cause a few extra cases of asthma.

I, along with everyone else living in this air corridor have a stake in this.

I understand the epidemiology of the health effects of S02, and I have an insider’s insight into a process that is weighted heavily in favour of would-be polluters, especially those with deep corporate pockets.

What a disappointing, if not surprising, decision by the appeal board.

Reading through the board’s reasoning it becomes clear that they speak and understand the same language as Rio Tinto Alcan.

They too believe that the onus should be on people to prove harm rather than on the company to prove safety.

They too are happy with an approval process managed hand in hand by the regulator and the polluter.  They choose to believe that this is the way of the world, and that it is just fine.

I noted with interest that they cited Northern Health as being supportive of the permit based on a letter in which we acknowledged the usefulness of the STAR report  as a background document, but they chose to ignore the fact that we urged the Ministry of Environment to require the installation of scrubbers; a best practice technology ideally suited to the Kitimat setting and the logical way to protect health in the face of uncertainty about the  science related to ambient S02 and human health.

Given the time of year the appeal decision was released, I was reminded of that iconic miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Except Scrooge was a person with a heart and soul who  could be startled out of his pinched worldview by spirits reminding him that human values are more important than profit.

Rio Tinto Alcan, like almost all large corporate entities, is a profit generating machine with that and only that in its DNA. No ghosts will ever visit it and catalyse a change of heart.

The appellants in the case, and their legal team from the UVIC Environmental Law Centre, did an outstanding job of trying to make the argument for clean air.  We owe them a debt of thanks for the effort they put into challenging a flawed and cynical process.

But I am under no more illusions that the existing environmental assessment processes or “health studies” as window dressing in an “adaptive management” approach to pollution are adequate to protect the public’s health.

I am at a loss as to what if any more can be done within the system as it is. We are being hoodwinked. Perhaps just being clear about that is an important first step toward tipping the balance back toward human values and human health.

As long as we accept that we are here to serve an economy dominated by profit taking rather than being served by an economy that works for us and as long as we view the environment as a corporate asset rather than as our common human space, we will continue to be peasants living at the largesse of corporate lords.

Please sir could I have a job in your factory even as you reduce the workforce? Could you spare us just a little clean air at Christmas time?

In the words of Tiny Tim on behalf of the ordinary people in London who had no choice but to live under the terms and conditions dictated by Ebenezer Scrooge, “God bless us every one.”

David Bowering, Terrace, B.C.

(Editor’s note: David Bowering is a former chief medical health officer for the Northern Health Authority.)