Lowering Standards for Pollutant Emissions in Quebec

Rouyn-Noranda Community Demands Urgent Action to Curb Arsenic Emissions

– Pierre Chénier –

Townhall in Rouyn-Noranda on problem of arsenic emissions, July 6, 2022.

Community organizations in Rouyn-Noranda, in the Abitibi region of Quebec, such as Mothers at the Front and the Stop Toxic Emissions and Discharges (ARET) Committee, are speaking out to demand urgent action so that emissions of arsenic and other elements such as cadmium in the air are drastically and immediately lowered. The culprit is the Horne smelter, owned by the Anglo-Swiss mining/metallurgical giant Glencore. The fumes are so bad at times that people are directly affected, especially in the Notre-Dame neighbourhood, which is very close to the smelter, and parents are particularly concerned about the health of their young children.

Residents held a public meeting on July 6. According to the media, several people spoke and denounced the fact that the government persists in saying that it is impossible for Glencore to respect the limit allowed in Quebec for arsenic emissions, which is three nanograms per cubic metre. That is also the World Health Organization's standard. Many also criticized the Quebec government's intentions to provide public funds to Glencore to reduce its pollution.

Troubling Facts

Overexposure to arsenic has led to concerns about the development of cancer in the population. Already, a study conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and Social Services on the 2013-2017 level of lung cancer in Quebec revealed that the incidence of lung cancer was 140 per 100,000 people in Rouyn-Noranda, while the average in Quebec was 107.7. The incidence of lung cancer was also higher in Rouyn-Noranda than in the region's other municipalities, although to a lesser degree than in Quebec as a whole.

Other studies have identified a higher than normal proportion of low birth weights in newborns, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lower life expectancy than in the rest of Quebec. According to a study released by Quebec's Public Health Expertise and Reference Centre (INSPQ) on July 6, maintaining the status quo with respect to arsenic and cadmium emissions in the city's atmosphere would result in 13 to 550 additional cases of lung cancer per million people in Quebec, while the risk considered negligible in Quebec is one case per million.The risk considered negligible for Quebec is one case per million. If the status quo is kept, lung cancer rates for the city of Rouyn-Noranda could climb to 61 cases per 100,000 and for the Notre-Dame neighbourhood 87 cases per 100,000 people.

However, the most disturbing aspect is the very high level of arsenic emissions in the ambient air. The smelter is officially allowed to exceed the Quebec standard under the hoax that the standard came into effect in 2011, long after the smelter began operations in 1927.

The Quebec government currently allows a limit of 100 nanograms per cubic metre, over 30 times higher than the standard. According to Quebec government data, the level of arsenic released in the air actually reached an average of 100 nanograms per cubic metre in 2021.

The government has a ministerial committee and agreements with Glencore on lowering the rates, but essentially, it is allowing the company to regulate itself, as is being done federally with the rail industry, with disastrous consequences. It suggests, it advises, it is concerned -- but the decision rests with Glencore.

In March 2021, Quebec's Minister of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change, Benoit Charette, spoke of the direction the government is providing to the company.

"Yes, close monitoring of emissions by the company itself," he said. "We want to establish an agreement with this company, which has always been very collaborative, so that we can better support it. There are different ministries that can intervene in the process. Naturally, Public Health and the Environment, but our colleagues in the Economy and in Municipal Affairs are also involved.

"This is where my colleague Pierre Fitzgibbon [Minister of the Economy] will intervene to see where the company's needs are," he added. "The company already has some projects to improve its industrial processes. This can take the form of financial as well as technical support, and this is where the committee's versatility comes into play."

The Quebec government is currently in talks with Glencore to establish the limit for upcoming years. However, given the spirit it is displaying and its elimination of even the possibility of abiding by the Quebec standard, nobody trusts that the government will actually force Glencore to drastically reduce its arsenic emissions.

An Argument that Doesn't Hold Water

The government's unfounded argument is that a balance must be struck between economic development and health and safety and the environment. This argument does not hold water. 

Modern high-tech production such as that used in the ore-smelting sector can have serious consequences for the natural and social environment when monopolies like Glencore are not held accountable by government.  Environmental control and protection need to be an integral part of production itself. They are an essential part of the control that can and must be exercised, but instead the government protects and pays Glencore to continue its poisoning of the human and natural environment. Furthermore, besides enforcing standards with redress, no public funds should be handed over to Glencore to address their irresponsible arsenic emissions.

Glencore shows that the private monopolies and oligopolies want nothing to interfere with the pursuit of maximum private profit for themselves. The government claims of providing a “balance” between economic development and the environment are a fraud. A sound environment is the responsibility of the owners of modern production and technology exists to guarantee it. As long as global private interests control production and own the production facilities, they must be required to use some of the social wealth they expropriate from the workers to ensure that the human and natural environment remains unharmed.

Premier François Legault is playing a dishonest game with regard to where its own responsibility lies. On June 23, he hinted at the threat of closure if demands are placed on Glencore. "The people of Rouyn-Noranda do not want the company to be closed," he told reporters. Then, faced with the opposition of the people, he told the press, on July 5: "Let's be very clear: if no plan is submitted by the company to reduce emissions to a level that is safe for the public, we are effectively not ruling out closing down the company."

People are very clear. The Quebec government must defend and protect them. It must hear the voice of the people speaking out on what they require in order to live a healthy and secure life, which is their right. However, under the hoax of protecting jobs and of "economic development," that right has never been recognized and enforced. It must force Glencore to abide by the Quebec standard, within a definite time frame.

Are these phrases the Premier is uttering a plan to open up the floodgates for an ever more massive injection of public funds into Glencore in the name of avoiding the possibility of a closure? And if a closure were to occur, are workers and communities to blame?

Legault's statements do not reflect the history of the labour and popular movement in the region. In the early 2000s, and even before, the smelter workers and their union fought an epic struggle to block emissions of beryllium, sulfur and other elements, to protect workers and the community. They faced blackmail and the threat of closure, but they declared that they were not going to be intimidated and that production must include a safe and healthy environment for all. And the plant did not close! Progress was made to protect workers and the public.

It is absurd to say that a determined struggle to defend rights will inevitably close the plant. It is this struggle that moves us forward and paves the way for progress in all aspects of life, including building an economy that serves the well-being of the people and over which they exercise control.

Let us passionately defend the cause of the people of Rouyn-Noranda who are speaking out in defence of their rights and a future worthy of the name!

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 7 - July 17, 2022

Article Link:


Website:  www.cpcml.ca   Email:  editor@cpcml.ca