Hamiltonians are breathing air contaminated by two carcinogenic chemicals at levels significantly higher than the Ministry of Environment’s incoming air standards – and it’s going to stay that way for years.

These airborne culprits are well known in Hamilton: benzo[a]pyrene and benzene. Both can cause leukemia and other cancers.

'“Since they are science-based, we do acknowledge industries might not be able to meet the standard right away.' - Kate Jordan Ministry of Environment

The fight to reduce their levels in the province's air has been happening for decades, with significant improvements seen since the 1990s. The ministry has set new standards that go into effect in July of 2016 to further lower them – but steelmakers already say those ideal standards are impossible to meet. And the province agrees.

So the ministry has created a second process where it negotiates “site specific” rules for each plant so that steelmakers all over Ontario can still legally put out emissions above the standard, as long as they as they are working toward meeting the new standards. Those special rules will cover emissions until 2020, but even at that date the new standards will not be met.

It’s part of a new strategy for air pollution control that mirrors one established in the United States more than a decade ago. But in the meantime, air regulations in the United States have moved on, leaving Ontario well behind American regulators and Hamiltonians breathing dirtier air.

So why has the MOE enacted standards that are impossible to meet, and why are we so far behind the U.S. when it comes to keeping these compounds out of our air?

A 'totally convoluted' set of rules

Ministry spokesperson Kate Jordan told CBC Hamilton the new guidelines were built purely on a “scientific basis” of harm, not by any ability to meet them.

“Since they are science-based, we do acknowledge industries might not be able to meet the standard right away,” Jordan said. She was also steadfast that the site specific standards companies like Dofasco and U.S. Steel are under are “temporary measures” until they can meet incoming standards for specific industries.

“They do have to demonstrate continuous improvement,” she said.

'People like me have a hard time with this. How is the community going to understand it?' - Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton.

In the case of ArcelorMittal Dofasco, staying in compliance and getting on the road to the new standards means the company is making $700 million in facility upgrades from 2011 to 2016.

"We just need to have the time to spend the money to achieve what we need,” said Jim Stirling, AMD's general manager of environment.

Trying to understand the ministry’s new standards and how benzo[a]pyrene and benzene fit in is “totally convoluted,” says Lynda Lukasik, the executive director of Environment Hamilton. “People like me have a hard time with this. How is the community going to understand it?” she asked.

Here’s the simplified version when it comes to risk to the community. Under the “ideal vision” of the ministry’s rules, a person who lives in a neighbourhood near the steel mills in Hamilton’s industrial north would have a one in one million chance of developing cancer over 70 years of continuous exposure to benzo[a]pyrene.

Right now, it’s actually much closer to a one in 2,500 chance that will happen over a lifetime, Lukasik says ministry sources have told her anecdotally – and it was much worse than that before 2005, she says. People in the north have been living with those high concentrations for years.

Finding the 'acceptable risk'

Hamilton U.S. Steel Flags Vertical

U.S. Steel spokesperson Trevor Harris says the company has seen reductions of 89 per cent for Benzene and 98 per cent for benzo[a]pyrene in recent years. (John Rieti/CBC)

If all goes well by 2020 under the ministry’s new rules, the average benzo[a]pyrene concentration in our air will still equal a greater than one in 10,000 chance that a person will develop cancer after a lifetime of exposure. That’s still over 100 times the MOE’s ideal standard.

“This is not ideal, but I believe that it represents best available control,” ministry air pollution engineer Scott Grant wrote in an email to Lukasik.

On the technical side, the ministry's new annual average air concentration for benzene that will come into effect in 2016 is 0.45 μg/m3. In the areas around Hamilton industries, the ambient concentration has fluctuated in recent years between 1.8 and 4 µg/m3. That's roughly between four and almost nine times greater.

According to the Hamilton Air Monitoring Network, benzene levels at a monitoring station on the beach strip fluctuated wildly last year – from 5.41 μg/m3 in January at the worst, to 0.30 μg/m3 in April at the best. The level was almost always higher than the 0.45 μg/m3 benchmark.

The new ministry standards mirror those of the American EPA, where the “acceptable risk” for carcinogens in their air is approximately one in one million to one in 10,000, which has been achieved in part using a type of technical standards called MACT.

Under the MACT standards, the EPA looks at the emissions levels being achieved by the country's “best-performing” plants (about the top 12 per cent) and then tells the rest of an industry to meet that benchmark.

A slow start

The U.S. introduced those rules in 2003 and amended them in 2006. Ontario is only starting that process now.

“In many respects, they’re ahead of us when it comes to addressing emissions,” Lukasik said. The province didn’t establish any legally enforceable standards for benzo[a]pyrene and benzene until 2011, and they won’t be properly phased in until 2016, she says, putting us way behind the U.S. — and even then, Hamilton’s steel mills won’t be hitting the MOE’s one in a million benchmark for carcinogens.

Just before Christmas, the ministry asked for public feedback on proposals to extend site specific pollution standards until 2020 for U.S. Steel and Dofasco. That process closed on Feb. 5.

Under the ministry's new proposal, Ministry spokesperson Jennifer Hall says, steelmakers will be expected to meet the U.S. benchmarks by 2020 — 17 years after they were introduced in the United States.

"As a result of the implementation of the site-specific standard and U.S. rules, the ministry estimates up to a 30 per cent reduction in suspended particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene and benzene air emissions from the coke batteries within the first couple of years and up to a 40 per cent reduction in these air emissions by 2020," Hall said.

ArcelorMittal Dofasco meets the ministry’s current standards under a site-specific delegation, while U.S. Steel is still working through the site-specific standards application process, which was slowed down because of labour disruptions, the company says.

Ideal standards are 'unachievable,' industry leaders say

Dofasco took its number one coke plant out of commission in part due to environmental concerns, Stirling from Dofasco. The company is also pumping $87 million into the restoration of its other coke plants.

Everyone in the industry acknowledges that the MOE’s new air standards are “unachievable,” he says. “The ministry made no consideration of setting those standards in a way that’s technologically or monetarily possible.

'We just need to have the time to spend the money to achieve what we need.' - Jim Stirling, general manager of environment at ArcellorMittal Dofasco

“Even if you built a brand new coke plant in the middle of nowhere, it’s technically unachievable.”

According to Dofasco and U.S. Steel, both companies are moving towards technical standards based on the best available technology and practices in the industry.

U.S. Steel spokesperson Trevor Harris says the company is doing “everything in its power” to reduce emissions, and have seen reductions of 89 per cent for Benzene and 98 per cent for benzo[a]pyrene in recent years.

And while the MOE “absolutely” has local steelmakers on the road to where the U.S. levels sit, Stirling says, “the road getting there has been a challenge.”

“Are we behind? Yes,” he said. “But we are getting aligned.”

Can you protect both industry and environment?

So why are we lagging? Lukasik says it has to do with a provincial philosophy that prized helping out industry over protecting the environment – something that was especially prevalent pre-2005. “The industrial lobby is strong in this province,” she said. “That approach is standard in Ontario.”

U.S. Steel worked “cooperatively” with the ministry to develop these new standards, Harris says.

It’s not a matter of prizing industry over environment, Stirling says, but trying to find a way to make them work in concert. It isn’t possible for companies to just immediately throw hundreds of millions of dollars at equipment upgrades without heading into the red – which could cause businesses to fold and Hamiltonians to be out of work.

Stirling said it is important to keep in mind that Dofasco and U.S. Steel management and employees live and work in the city as well, so they have a vested interest in air quality, too. “And we’re of the opinion that our plant is a healthy and safe place to work,” Stirling said.

Lukasik says the ministry is trying to push a message that says “look how much better we are now compared to then” instead of admitting how far behind we are compared to the U.S.

 “In the end, those aren’t happy words for all of us in this airshed.”

adam.carter@cbc.ca | @AdamCarterCBC