New Brunswick

East Saint John residents worry about 'particulate' released from Irving refinery

Some east Saint John residents are expressing health concerns after a "technical issue" at the Irving Oil refinery on Sunday left their neighbourhoods blanketed in gritty white dust.

Company apologizes after 'technical issue' during start up of fluidized catalytic cracking unit Sunday

Area resident Jason Doucette said he's worried about what the fine particulate released by the Irving Oil refinery was and how it might affect people's health. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Some east Saint John residents are expressing health concerns after a "technical issue" at the Irving Oil refinery on Sunday left their neighbourhoods blanketed in gritty white dust.

Red Head area residents received apology letters from Irving Oil about the release of "fine particulate," along with $30 in gift cards in their mailboxes.

"We experienced a technical issue during the start-up of our fluidized catalytic cracking unit (FCCU) from the maintenance turnaround," the Nov. 14 letter states.

"As a result, we had an impact to some areas in the neighbouring communities with the distribution of fine particulate. We sincerely apologize."

The letter does not state what exactly the particulate contains, how much was released or how far it spread.

"What we're concerned about is what was the particulate and what health impacts it will have on us," area resident Jason Doucette told CBC News on Wednesday.​

The Department of Environment is investigating and has notified the Department of Health, as per its protocol, said spokesperson Marc André Chiasson 

Department of Health officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

But the Department of Environment has "reviewed this kind of incident before and the particle size is fairly large so it is considered more of a nuisance issue," Chiasson said in an emailed statement.

Irving Oil says the fine particulate was released from the refinery Sunday during the startup of the fluidized catalytic cracking unit as part of maintenance work. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)
The department website indicates fine particulate "causes and aggravates a variety of human cardiovascular ailments," although none are listed.

"It also contributes to haze," it says.

The website describes fine particulate as "tiny (invisible) airborne specks of solid or liquid material (e.g., dust & soot).

"It is generated by natural sources (e.g., wind-blown dust and forest fires), and through fuel burning (especially fossil fuels and wood)."

'Serious threat to lung health'

The New Brunswick Lung Association's director of health said particulate matter poses "a serious threat to lung health because it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and damage lung tissue."

"Current research also indicates that low levels of particulate matter — and that would be particles that are smaller than one-eighth the diameter of a strand of human hair — can inflame the airways that lead to the lungs, resulting in coughing and wheezing [and] can disrupt normal lung function, which may prompt the use of medications, if not a visit to the emergency room," said Barbara Walls.

People with pre-existing lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are particularly at risk because it can exacerbate their symptoms, she said.

Those with pre-existing heart conditions are also at an increased risk because it can affect their heart rhythm and increase their chances of having a heart attack, said Walls.

Paper medical masks cannot protect against such tiny particles, she said. Special filtration masks are required.

Particulate matter will eventually dissipate on its own, said Walls, but it could take "several days."

Report due within days

Irving Oil officials have not responded to a request for an interview.

The Department of Environment spokesperson said "on occasion, particulate matter can be unintentionally released due to a mechanical failure in the fluidized catalytic cracking unit at the refinery."

The department was notified about the latest incident through Environment and Climate Change Canada's National Environmental Emergencies Centre because it occurred after hours, said Chiasson.

It was reported as a "non-emergency event," he said.

"One of our inspectors immediately followed up with company officials" and the department is expecting a follow-up report from the refinery this week, he said.

Gift cards questioned

The company has "made adjustments" to the fluidized catalytic cracking unit to "minimize further impact on our neighbours," according to the letter, signed by community relations specialist Rebecca Belliveau.

"We appreciate your patience while we complete this work, and ask that you contact us if you would like additional information or have any concerns."

Doucette contends the Irving gas station gift cards were intended to "silence people."

"Instead of sending $30 they should actually step up and say, 'This is what we accidentally released, this is the health impact on you.'"

The company's money would have been better spent on clearing up unanswered questions about possible long-term effects, he said.

Gordon Campbell wants to know more about the 'film' the release from the refinery left on his car. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)
Neighbour Gordon Campbell is also looking for more information about the residue.

"It was just a film all over the car," he said, with traces of the white dust still visible on his blue vehicle on Wednesday.

Campbell's thumb turned black after he ran it along the front passenger door.

"I was going to take it and get it washed, but I didn't," he said of his car. "I wondered what it was and now we've received these letters."

2010 release affected 5-km radius

This isn't the first time Irving Oil has apologized to area residents for the release of particulate.

In August 2010, residents in the Champlain Heights, Silver Falls, and Loch Lomond awoke three times to find their homes and vehicles covered in a grey, gritty dust.

The first reported release on Aug. 19 was caused by an interrupted startup of a processing unit, officials said at the time.

The residue, described as a non-hazardous catalyst made from clay and silica compounds, spread over a five-kilometre radius around the refinery.

In 2010, cars and homes in the Champlain Heights, Silver Falls, and Loch Lomond area were covered with white dust released from the oil refinery. ((Submitted by Peter Searle))

Irving Oil shut down the processing unit after the fallout, but dust was released again two days later when the unit was restarted.

The Department of Environment investigated and found there had been a previous release on Aug. 17.

No charges were laid. The investigation found the release didn't have any environmental implications and didn't violate any of the refinery's operating conditions, department officials had said.

The company subsequently corrected any equipment that was not operating properly, performed maintenance and made some procedural changes, officials said.

With files from Joseph Tunney

now