An environmental group is taking legal action to demand that Environment and Climate Change Canada investigate possible health impacts if a Canadian potash exporting company dredged sediment from Prince Rupert harbour.

Canpotex, which is looking to construct an export terminal on Ridley Island, has been issued a renewed permit that allows the company to lift sediment from the harbour bottom and deposit it elsewhere in the harbour. The company says it will comply with all government regulations and takes the environmental impact of the work "very seriously."

But the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation says that dioxins and furans — toxic chemicals that are found in very small amounts in the environment — are in the sediment.

Dredging will release toxins, lawyer says

"The real problem here is that these toxins bioaccumulate, so they are actually associated with significant risks such as increased exposure to diabetes, certain types of cancer, and various other very serious human health concerns," said Angela McCue, legal counsel for foundation.

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A dredger at Marmaray rail tube tunnel construction, Istanbul, Turkey. (UIG via Getty Images)

"It is expected that when the dredge occurs the dioxins and furans that were there since pulp mill times will be resuspended into the water column, which will affect fisheries and potentially get into the food chain."

Canpotex markets and exports potash — mined and manufactured salts mostly used for fertilizers — to countries in Asia, Latin America and Oceania.

McCue said the foundation has filed an objection to the renewal of Canpotex' permit to dispose dredged material at sea.

She said filing a notice of objection with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is a process through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which allows any person to request that a board of review be established when it comes to the permits.

CBC News put in several requests to Environment and Climate Change Canada, but was told by a spokesperson that the ministry was still working on the file and did not yet have a response.

"T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation has tried and tried and tried through the regular process, has written Environment Canada numerous times asking for proper inquiries, and was in fact promised written responses to all of our inquiries, and then this permit was just issued without any answers," McCue said.

What are the risks?

She said the act doesn't set a time for when the Environment and Climate Change Minister has to respond, but said if no answer is received in the next several weeks the foundation may consider taking court action.

Prince Rupert

Ridley Island, near Prince Rupert (facebook.com/rupertport)

"What we are hoping to achieve is to find out exactly how much risk there is, and what steps can be taken to avoid it," she said.

"If the resuspension of the sediments will result for a few months in an increased hazard then people need to know that and not fish in that area for that time.

"If it's going to be a number of years people need to know that and be able to govern themselves accordingly, and act in a way that their health is not unduly affected."

Scott Rudderham, senior vice president of operations at Canpotex, said in a statement that the company takes the environmental impact of their proposed Prince Rupert terminal "very seriously."

"Canpotex has been and will continue to be thorough and fully compliant with all of Environment Canada's processes and regulations."

According to Canpotex' website, the potash trader has already "received all required governmental environmental permits for its proposed potash export terminal at Prince Rupert and has signed a lease agreement with the Prince Rupert Port Authority."


To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Environmental group wants health risks of dredging in Prince Rupert harbour to be assessed

With files from George Baker