ArcelorMittal Dofasco has been fined $390,000 after pleading guilty to a series of environmental charges for violations of air quality standards.

The settlement comes after more than a year of delay-plagued court proceedings, with an appearance Monday where the company pleaded guilty to six out of 13 environmental charges and the remaining seven being withdrawn. 

The charges were initially laid in March 2013 after neigbourhood residents and Environment Hamilton gathered evidence of repeated emissions problems from the Hamilton steelmaker smokestacks. But the delays in laying the charges, the long process of getting the guilty plea and the actual penalty have left residents frustrated, with some calling it "too little, too late."

And one activist says problems with emissions are continuing.

The Ministry of the Environment laid 13 charges against the Hamilton-based steel company in March 2013 for air emission violations at its coke-making plants between April and August 2012. The ministry alleged that the company exceeded visible emissions (opacity) levels set by the province. 

Dofasco's guilty pleas were accepted by the judge. The company was fined $65,000 for each count for a total of $390,000 plus victim fine surcharges of $97,500, to be paid within 30 days.  

In a press release Monday morning, Dofasco said the company has "committed to continuously improving its operating procedures and performance. At the same time, the company continues to invest in both repair and maintenance and capital improvements for the plants."

The incidents took place at the company's three plants where coal is used to produce coke, a fuel for the facility's three blast furnaces, the company said. 

ArcelorMittal Dofasco's representative turned down CBC Hamilton's interview request, but said the company reiterates what was in the statement released on Monday. 

In a statement released Monday after the ruling, the ministry explained that the company was fined for permitting air emissions that blocked light by more than twenty per cent for six consecutive minutes, a violation of the Environmental Protection Act.

The charges stemmed from observations by ministry officers who recorded the opacity — how much an emission blocks the passage of light — on six days in summer 2012 and confirmed the emissions.

The ministry has received a number of complaints related to smoke coming form the facility over the past few years, the statement said. 

The ministry did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday. 

'Too little, too late'

During the court proceeding, Dofasco's lawyer pointed out the company's plan to make $87 million in upgrades at No. 2 and No. 3 plants. The company also announced last year that it will phase out No. 1 plant in early 2015.

But to north-end resident Lorna Moreau, Monday's court outcome is “too little, too late.”

Lorna Moreau

Lorna Moreau, a north-end resident, has been fighting air pollution in Hamilton for years. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

Moreau, an outspoken critic of air pollution in the city, said although she was pleased to see the company's guilty pleas, the amount of the fine and the dropped charges left her frustrated.

“It's not getting any better,” she told CBC Hamilton after attending the court proceeding. “It's money and profit over our health.”

A former resident of the McAnulty Boulevard neighbourhood of more than 30 years, Moreau said she had to move after developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a long-term lung disease. The smokestacks that spew "huge black billows of smoke" drove her out of the neighbourhood, she said. 

McAnulty Boulevard residents have been concerned about air pollution for years. Moreau said her former neighbours at the close-knit neighbourhood have complained about headache, nausea, burning throat, stinging eyes and cough.

Dofasco's lawyer pointed out the company has launched community drop-in sessions for residents to meet with “top-level company officials.” Moreau, a regular attendee, said she found them to be ineffective.

“If you go, they think we are in agreement, if you don't go, they think you are not complaining,” she told CBC Hamilton.

The company also has a community liaison committee of about 20 members that meets quarterly to discuss environmental issues. Moreau said her application to join the committee was denied.  

The case was finally settled after several delays, some of them happened when the ministry didn't meet deadlines to disclose evidence.