Rio Tinto Alcan Externalizing Air Pollution onto Kitimat Households, Says Expert Witness

Increased sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution from the expanded Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. will result in increased health costs for local households, an expert witness told an Environmental Appeals Board panel in Victoria, Monday.

Dr. Brian Scarfe, an economist and cost-benefit analyst from the University of Victoria, testified before the tribunal that the externalized health costs placed on residents living near the Kitimat smelter will outstrip the cost of introducing scrubbers — which remove SO2 pollution from effluent — to the RTA plant.

In 2013 the B.C. government approved RTA’s permit to increase production of the smelter. The ‘modernization’ project will limit the release of other aluminum-associated emissions including greenhouse gases, but will result in a 56 per cent increase of sulphur dioxide being pumped into the airshed.

B.C. ruled RTA was not required to install scrubbers to prevent the SO2 increase from 27 to 42 tonnes per day.

Two Kitimat elementary teachers, Emily Toews and Lis Stannus are appealing the $3.3 billion project upgrade, saying it poses an unnecessary threat to human and environmental health. Appellant Emily Toews suffers from asthma, which heightens her sensitivity to even low SO2 levels. Children and the elderly are both at higher risk to SO2 exposure.

Before the appeal panel Scarfe argued the issue comes down cost distribution.

I don’t like to think of this as a zero sum game, but that is what we have: costs are going to fall one way or another, benefits are going to fall one way or another,” he said.

“If you have a process that is generating some form of pollution you need to consider that an impact on the environment and perhaps on human life — that’s an externality.”

We can think about households on one side and RTA on the other: clearly if nothing is done to limit SO2 there will be costs to the environment and costs to households in the area and that’s one kind of distribution,” he said.

“The costs fall on one side while the other avoids costs.”

High Sulphur Content of North American Petroleum Coke a Factor

According to Scarfe, the petroleum coke or petcoke, a byproduct of refined hydrocarbons, being used in RTA’s smelting operations is very high in sulphur content.

He said the higher the sulphur content of the petcoke, “the larger the SO2 emissions will be in relation to the production capacity of the plant.”

Scarfe added the low-sulphur petcoke market has dried up in recent years and that the higher levels of sulphur present in petcoke feeds may be the outcome of increased unconventional hydrocarbon production like fracking. Petcoke is also a waste product of bitumen upgrading in the Alberta oilsands, where the sulphur content is extremely high.

The sulphur content of petroleum being extracted in North America has gone up in number over time,” Scarfe said. The weighted average sulphur content in U.S. refineries has risen from 0.9 per cent in 1985 to 1.4 per cent in 2014.

RTA’s modernization proposal says the smelter expects to use petcoke with an average of 2.9 per cent sulphur but could be as high as 3.8 per cent.

These levels of sulphur would exceed the acceptable limits for smelters without scrubbers in foreign countries such as Iceland, Scarfe said.

If you were looking for solutions for large amounts of sulphur dioxide one of the options would be to buy petcoke, even if more expensive, with lower sulphur content.”

He added that given a consistent supply of low-sulphur petcoke can’t be guaranteed, a safer long term solution for the Kitimat airshed would be for RTA to install scrubbers.