Environment Hamilton is accusing the Ontario Ministry of Environment of giving ArcelorMittal Dofasco a "free pass" on pollution infractions until 2019..
It has released an email trail with the ministry from earlier this month where the ministry says it does not intend to pursue further investigation into the coke plant "that may or may not result in charges," during the five-year period the company has promised to fix the problems.
However late Friday, in response to the accusation, the ministry it said it would monitor the company's progress and "would continue to investigate and prosecute where appropriate."
The plant was fined $390,000 in May, stemming from charges a year earlier, and has committed to $87 million in upgrades on a five-year plan, set to be completed in 2019. The fallout of those charges - six of which ArcelorMittal Dofasco pleaded guilty to while seven were thrown out - is detailed in an order to clean up their act from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.
MOE: 'The guilty plea resolves these matters'
But the emails between the local environmental watchdog and the ministry suggest that while ArcelorMittal Dofasco shuts down one coke plant and makes repairs to two others, the ministry won't be investigating further or past potential pollution infractions .
"The guilty plea resolves these matters," wrote ministry spokesperson Jennifer Hall in a single-line email on June 9, 2014, in response to clarifications on a free pass for the plant from Environment Hamilton executive director Lynda Lukasik.
The emails provided by Environment Hamilton stem from a single day of exchanges between the two parties.
"Rather than pursuing further investigations that may or may not result in charges," Hall stated in another email to Lukasik. "The ministry believes the best way to control emissions from Arcelor(Mittal Dofasco) is to require the company to take action now, improve its operations and invest in new technology to reduce emissions."
Lukasik, however, called the order from the Ministry a done deal, despite the order's public consultation period, which is still ongoing until the end of June.
She also called the order a "sweetheart deal," considering the five-year timeline for the improvements.
The ministry did not address questions from CBC Hamilton whether it had explicitly told ArcelorMittal Dofasco it would not investigate future pollutants. The ministry did say it believes the order to comply would be the "best way" to force the steelmaker to reduce emissions.
"The order would require the company to improve its operations and technology used at the plant resulting in actual improvements - a 54 per cent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions and a 46 per cent reduction in benzene emissions," Hall said in an email Friday.
And she indicated the order does not preclude investigations or actions, despite the earlier statement to Lukasik.
"The ministry will continue to take abatement action against the company if it does not operate within the spirit of the Preventative Measures Order and by their standard operating procedures, and we will continue to investigate and prosecute where appropriate," said Hall.
Dofasco cites investments
ArcelorMittal Dofasco did not respond to interview requests from CBCHamilton, but issued a statement reiterating its plan to invest in improvement and repairs as part of its compliance with the order from the ministry.
"ArcelorMittal Dofasco has finalized a series of proactive and ongoing projects in cokemaking which are designed to improve environmental performance and which are documented in an improvement plan with the Ministry of (the) Environment," read the statement.
"The long term cokemaking strategy includes an $87 million investment in major restorative work at No. 2 and No. 3 cokemaking plants along with the phase out of No. 1 Coke Plant in early 2015 (which was announced in 2013). This strategy, which includes extensive work including flue repairs, oven wall repairs, as well as work to by-products plants, will bring significant improvement to the efficiency and environmental performance of the cokemaking plants."
Merulla: 'Toothless Queen's Park'
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla backed Environment Hamilton's stance that the ministry doesn't have the tools to go after perennial polluters.
"At present, we really have a toothless Queen's Park and legislation related to environment… Particularly as it relates to air fall outs and air emissions," said Merulla. "It's a lack of enforceable legislation."
Both Merulla and Lukasick called for "air spillage" laws that would treat air pollutants the same way as they're treated in the water and on land.
"These are serious emissions," said Lukasick. "We have (fines) for spills to water and land… We're saying we need this for air (too)."