MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian polluter at bay

Published by MAC on 2008-11-17

Last week we reported that one of the "victims" of the current global financial recession was Canadian company Hudbay's Fenix nickel project in Guatemala.See:

It was the first time we've featured Hudbay on our website. Now, the same company is accused of failing to report to local communities an unacceptable increase in emissions from its Manitoba-based Flin Flon copper smelter - Canada's worst metals polluter of 2007.

Last year the plant coughed out 12,846 kg more lead, 2,974 kg more arsenic, 195 kg more mercury, and 6,373 metric tonnes more sulphuric dioxide than it did in 2006.

Ironically, the smelter may itself soon close down as the company succumbs further to the economic turn-down and reduced demand for copper.

HudBay smelter fails to clean up

Jen Skerritt

Winnipeg Free Press

14th November 2008

Mounting public pressure has failed to put a cap on Flin Flon's copper smelter, which topped the list of Canada's worst metal polluters last year and exceeded its own output of harmful contaminants from the year before.

According to preliminary 2007 data from the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), the HudBay Minerals Inc. copper smelter spewed the most toxic lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and sulphur dioxide of any facility in the country. The smelter reported significantly higher levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and sulphur dioxide than in 2006, which prompted the province to ask for a written report detailing what will be done to address the problem.

Community leaders who were prepared to be patient with HudBay are upset the company didn't tell Flin Flon residents about elevated levels of potentially harmful contaminants, despite repeated community meetings about pollution held over the last 12 months.

Flin Flon Mayor Tom Therien said he's not surprised officials tried to keep the increase in emissions quiet -- the company and province buried the initial report that revealed much of the town's soil is contaminated.

"They're hoping nobody picks it up. And to be honest, they were hoping no one would pick up that (initial) Conservation report either," he said. "You're talking about a provincial government organization that basically hid the report."

Therien said he's upset smelter executives withheld the latest report about what's coming out of the stack. Although many Flin Flon residents aren't bothered by living next to the smelter, he said the latest emissions data could spark ire among some residents since HudBay pledged to communicate with townspeople about the impact of area pollution.

"Things aren't as rosy as the company would like to portray. It may spark some people to say, 'look it, you're lying to me,"' Therien said.

"I'm upset the city officials had to find out from (the Free Press).
We thought there was open communication between the company and the city of Flin Flon."

A Manitoba Conservation study published last July revealed much of the town's soil in 2006 exceeded standard guidelines for human health, with high levels of mercury, arsenic and lead recorded in some of Flin Flon's parks and playgrounds.

The findings prompted an in-depth human health risk assessment of area contaminants and recently pushed Premier Gary Doer to announce $150,000 for an immediate clean up of two of the town's most polluted parks.

But even as scientists and politicians descended on the small northern Manitoba town, smelter emissions crept up.

Last year, the smelter spewed out 12,846 kg more lead, 2,974 kg more arsenic, 195 kg more mercury, and 6,373 metric tonnes more sulphuric dioxide than it did in 2006.

The smelter released close to 74,000 kg of lead in total - over 20,000 kg more lead than the second worst polluter in Canada.

Alan Hair, HudBay's vice-president of metallurgy, safety and health, said the smelter's outdated equipment makes it difficult to adapt to new technology that can significantly reduce emissions. He said emissions reduction technology requires a huge long-term investment, which doesn't make economic sense for the company.

Hair said the smelter will likely close and that company officials are close to hammering out a timeline to detail when.

"We have been wrestling with what's the best way to deal with this issue because we certainly don't want to be number one in terms of polluters," Hair said. "The funny thing is when the smelter shuts down we'll have one of the cleanest operations in Canadian industry."

Hair said emissions are expected to go down in 2008 thanks to a lower production of copper - a change, he admits is somewhat based on economic factors. He pointed out that the company has always complied with provincial pollution regulations.

The company has invested more than $200 million in the last two decades to reduce emissions, which were once much higher than they are now.

Manitoba Conservation assistant deputy minister Serge Scrafield said the province told the smelter their 2007 emissions were not acceptable and asked for a written report by April 2009 detailing a concrete plan to mitigate them.

Scrafield pointed out HudBay has made substantial progress reducing their emissions in the last 20 years and said he believes they'll make a seven per cent reduction this year to meet federal targets.

Based on 2007 emissions data, a seven per cent reduction in emissions would still leave HudBay as the worst polluter of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury in Canada.

"What we have said is there's been slippage in 2007 - small slippage compared to the emissions previously - and we've asked them to address it and file us a concrete plan," Scrafield said.

Scientist Elaine MacDonald of Toronto-based Ecojustice said the emissions level show the smelter is still releasing large amounts of metal into the environment, which will continue building up in soil and posing a potential risk to townspeople.

"If they don't deal with the source of the problem - which is the stack and the smelter - they're really just putting Band-Aid solutions on," she said.

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