British Columbia

Bad air from Rio Tinto aluminum smelter forcing her to move, Kitimat resident says

A Kitimat woman says she has to leave town in order to get away from sulphur dioxide being emitted by Rio Tinto Alcan's aluminium smelter. Members of the community have been trying to get the company to install scrubbers at the smelter to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

Move highlights continued battle between company and community over air quality in Kitimat

An aerial view of Kitimat, B.C., where Rio Tinto operates its upgraded aluminum smelter. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A Kitimat woman says she is being forced to leave the community due to sulphur dioxide emissions coming from Rio Tinto Alcan's aluminum smelter.

Sheena Cooper blames an increase in SO2 [sulphur dioxide] in the air for a spate of asthma attacks that have put her in hospital and on increased medication.

"At this point, it's we need to get out of this town so I can get healthy again," Cooper said of the decision to move her, her husband and their two children to the nearby community of Terrace.

Cooper said she's suffered from asthma since she was five years old, but until this year its effects have been mild. 

That changed in March, when she suffered a series of attacks and had to check into hospital seven times. She is now using prednisone, antibiotics and a higher dose of inhaler.

 "Those are things that I've never had to do in my life," she said. "I thought my asthma had improved so much living in Kitimat, but it seems — this is what I believe — that as soon as Rio Tinto started up their SO2, increased their emissions, my asthma just won't stop flaring."

Links between sulphur dioxide and human health

Though he can't be certain of the cause, Cooper's doctor says it's possible sulphur dioxide is behind her asthma attacks.

"I do suspect the air quality predisposed my patient to an asthma flare-up," wrote Dr. Brad Quon of the Pacific Lung Health Centre. 

"But I can't prove this with certainty, and I don't have the emissions data on the day of her flare-up."

When informed of Cooper's decision to move to Terrace, Quon said he encouraged the move based on the information available to him.

On a population level, sulphur dioxide has been linked to health problems, particularly among the elderly, children and people suffering from asthma.  

Sheena Cooper says she's had to double her usage of her inhaler since March. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A recent review by Health Canada recommended air quality targets be updated to recognize the potential health risks of low levels of sulphur dioxide in the air.

 Cooper strongly believes Rio Tinto is to blame for her health problems.

"Nothing else has changed in my life ... except for the increase of the SO2," she said.

"I go to visit Terrace on the weekends and my asthma almost improves completely. And then every time I come back to Kitimat it gets worse again." 

Air quality improving: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto, however, argues air quality in Kitimat has improved since it upgraded its aluminum smelter last year.

The modernization project was controversial because the B.C. government gave Rio Tinto permission to increase SO2 emissions from the smelter by as much as 56 per cent.

Residents of the community, including Rio Tinto's own employees, urged the company to install scrubbers, which use salt water to decrease the amount of SO2 released.

However, the company received provincial government approval to reopen without scrubbers.

Instead, it is taking part in an environmental effects monitoring program in order to track the upgrade's effects on human health and the environment. 

The decision was made in part, because although SO2 levels are increasing, overall emissions from the plant are decreasing as a result of the upgrade.

Rio Tinto spokeswoman Claudine Gagnon said upon hearing about Cooper's complaints, the company investigated sulphur dioxide emissions for the month of March.

They concluded emission levels for the month were "very low" and in some areas were "even lower than when the old smelter was operating."

'You're being used as a science experiment'

Those reassurances are little comfort to Kitimat mayor Phil Germuth.

"It almost feels as if you're being used as a science experiment," he said.

"'Oh, we're just going to wait and see what happens. Let's see if people end up with all these problems down the road and stuff.'" 

Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth says he's had little success persuading Rio Tinto or the provincial government to have scrubbers installed at the community's aluminium smelter. (District of Kitimat)

Germuth points to the Norway-based aluminum company Hydro as the standard British Columbia should be aiming for.

Hydro installs scrubbers at all its smelters, including a recently built one in Qatar.

"It's really baffling as to why here in British Columbia, Canada, you know, why we're not even close to the standards that other countries are doing to protect human health and their environment."

He says while he wishes Rio Tinto was willing to install the scrubbers of its own volition, ultimately the responsibility lies with the B.C. government.

"They [Rio Tinto] are not responsible to protect human health and the environment. That's our Ministry of Environment and, you know, we feel that on this one they kind of dropped the ball."

Scrubbers still an option

In response to questions about emissions in Kitimat, B.C. Ministry of Environment spokesman David Karn pointed to air quality monitoring stations placed throughout the Kitimat valley.

"Ambient concentrations of sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter are measured in real time and the data is displayed at http://www.bcairquality.ca/readings/index.html," he wrote.

He also included information about ministry meetings with the Kitimat public advisory committee, and the possibility of the province running a health study for the Kitimat region.

Karn said installing scrubbers at the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter is an option should the need arise based on the information collected by the environmental effects monitoring program.

Premier asked to intervene

Sheena Cooper isn't waiting. She is shutting down her home-based business in Kitimat at the end of August and relocating to Terrace.

She's also written a letter to Premier Christy Clark, urging her to force Rio Tinto to install scrubbers.

She says her health, and the health of her children, are not worth the risk.

"I'm hoping that we can get the government to realize that we're not guinea pigs," she said. 

"This is affecting people."


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