British Columbia

Province adds sulphur dioxide monitoring to Kitimat as concern over air quality continues

Kitimat, B.C., residents now have a new tool to track the concentration of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air.  The B.C. government announced a new system called Air Quality Health Index Plus (AQHI-Plus) on Tuesday, which will supplement the current pilot project alerting Kitimat residents of elevated sulphur dioxide levels in the community.

The 3 monitoring sites will be in Kitamaat Village, Riverlodge and the Whitesail neighbourhood

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

Kitimat, B.C., residents now have a new tool to track the concentration of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air. 

The B.C. government announced a new system called Air Quality Health Index Plus (AQHI-Plus) on Tuesday, which will supplement the current pilot project alerting Kitimat residents of elevated sulphur dioxide levels in the community.

Residents have expressed concern about the aluminum-producing Rio Tinto Alcan plant for years. They say it pumps chemicals into the air that can affect a person's health.

Alerts will be posted when concentrations reach or exceed 36 parts per billion at any of the three monitoring sites in the community. Those sites include Kitamaat Village, Riverlodge and the Whitesail neighbourhood.

An air quality map, pictured here, shows the current level of sulphur dioxide in Kitimat on Dec. 12, 2019. The light blue dots indicate that the level is between 0-30 parts per billion, which is considered low harm. (Government of British Columbia)

Environment Minister George Heyman said in a statement the pilot project is in direct response to community concerns about air quality.

"People have the right to know what's in the air they breathe," Heyman said in the statement.

Kitimat Terrace Clean Air Coalition's Lis Stannus says the move has been a long time coming. 

"The community is very concerned about sulphur dioxide, because we know that there are large amounts being released or that could be released from Rio Tinto," Stannus told the host of CBC's Daybreak North, Carolina de Ryk. 

The company said emissions from the plant have decreased since its 2015 upgrades. But Stannus said the coalition is worried they're referring to overall emissions, not how much they're allowed to release on a daily basis. 

"We want to make sure that pollution in our air is being measured accurately," she said. 

Controversial upgrade

In 2015, Rio Tinto modernized its Kitimat smelter but attracted controversy when the B.C. government gave the company permission to increase SO2 emissions by as much as 56 per cent.

Residents of the community, including Rio Tinto employees, urged the company to install scrubbers, which use saltwater to decrease the amount of SO2 released.

However, the company received provincial government approval to reopen without scrubbers. Instead, it took part in an environmental effects monitoring program in order to track the upgrade's effects on human health and the environment. 

The new AQHI-Plus program will provide hourly air quality values, on a scale of one to 10+, and offer health tips based on those readings. 

Short-term exposure to high SO2 levels can cause breathing difficulties and tightening of the chest, according to the province. Those with chronic respiratory illness, like asthma, can be even more sensitive to the effects of SO2. 

The government said people can receive alerts directly by email through the provincial air quality subscription service.

Click the link below to listen to the full interview:

The B.C. government is adding sulphur dioxide alerts to its air monitoring in Kitimat in response to residents worried about the impact the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter is having on their health. 9:11

With files from Andrew Kurjata and Daybreak North

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