The Great Debate Over Air Quality in the Swan Valley Reaches a Climax

by Larry Powell

(This story also appears in the current issue of Canadian Dimension magazine.)

Bill Blaikie is about to go through a bit of a “baptism by fire” as Manitoba's new Minister of Conservation. He will soon need to decide whether to order Louisiana Pacific Canada Ltd. (LP) to restart the pollution control devices it shut down at its wood products plant near Minitonas, in the Swan Valley over a year ago. If he does that, he will be throwing down the gauntlet to LP to make good on its threat to shut the whole plant down, dealing a body blow to the local economy.

Or he could grant the corporation’s request for a permanent decommissioning of the devices. If he does that, it could mean more harmful industrial pollutants will continue to be released into the atmosphere than at any time since the plant opened, with the controls operating, in 1996. Not only that, he would almost certainly incur the renewed wrath of individual citizens and environmental groups who believe the absence of controls is harming air quality, to some extent for Minitonas residents, but especially for those living even closer to the plant.

In its application to the government, LP said harsh economic realities were forcing it to cut costs. It reports its sales have been slumping thanks to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the US, where it sells much of its product.

The plant turns out oriented strand board (OSB) a type of paneling used in house construction.

OSB is made from compressed hardwood and wood chips sealed together with toxic bonding agents.

The company claims the aging control devices, called Regenerative Thermal Oxidizers, or RTOs, cost $3 million dollars a year to operate and will soon have to be replaced, at a cost of another $10 million. It calls them “a burden that will threaten the competitiveness of our operations.” (Other devices known as Wet Electrostatic Precipitators, (WESPS), help control particulate matter coming from the plant. LP has kept the WESPS running and plans to continue to do so.)

If the government requires it to start the RTOs up again, however, the company warns it may have to shut down the entire plant, . "Throwing hundreds of staff, contractors and log handlers out of work for an indefinite period."

On January 9th, 2009, apparently taking that threat seriously, Blaikie's predecessor, Stan Struthers, quietly said "yes" to LP’s request to temporarily decommission the RTOs.

Then, in March, after an uproar from critics, Struthers instructed the Clean Environment Commission, (CEC), an arms-length advisory agency, to conduct an investigation into the merits of LP's application. In July, the CEC heard witnesses both for and against that application.

The CEC was originally supposed to make its recommendations to Mr. Blaikie last fall. But it announced it would need extra time to consider additional evidence from the company. So those recommendations are not expected now until some time this spring.

Is There Evidence of Harm to Human Health?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the evidence on this question is conflicting.

The corporation told the CEC, a health risk assessment showed that, even without RTOs, the threat to the public ranged from zero to negligible.

But Dan Soprovich of Concerned Citizens of the Valley (CCV), strongly opposed to LP’s application, claims otherwise. He told the same CEC proceeding , a huge American study had established a link between formaldehyde in the atmosphere and ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. (Formaldehyde is one of the pollutants, which the plant produces.) Soprovich claimed three people have died of ALS within 10 miles of the plant since it opened.

Given local populations, he claims that is more than 11 times the national Canadian average.

So Just How Much Pollutant is Being Released?

According to Charles Simon of the Florida-based company, Precision Analytical Laboratories Inc., the amount is substantial.

He is one of three independent experts hired by Concerned Citizens of the Valley, the Boreal Forest Network and Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre.

These experts examined the claims made and methods used by LP to support its application.

Dr. Simon estimates, a fully operational mill, without controls, would put more than 1,000 tonnes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the air in one year. That's more than 40 times what it would have been, had the controls remained online. VOCs include cancer-causing substances such as formaldehyde.

Simon further calculates, without the RTOs, the mill would annually release almost 400 tonnes of another family of emissions, Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) in a year. That's 100 times what would have been the case had the controls stayed in place. HAPS include pollutants such as benzene, said to cause cancer and birth defects.

Is There a Win-Win Solution to All of This?"

Dr. Simon believes there is. He says hundreds of devices known as bioreactors are already being used successfully around the world to control industrial emissions.

He believes bioreactors might not only provide the best control technology available for the mill, they’d cost about the same or less than would new RTOs. And operating costs would be about one quarter of what they would otherwise be.

LP has reminded the public on several occasions that, when they were operating, the RTOs used to produce 12,000 tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases annually. That's because they burned large amounts of natural gas to incinerate the pollutants.

Dr. Simon concedes that this is true. But, he counters, bioreactors, don't create greenhouse gases at all in their operation. (He also suggests they may even be able to do the job of the WESPS, saving the company even more money.)

As CCV puts it, "This technology (bioreactors) can greatly reduce greenhouse gases and operating costs while effectively controlling the toxins and other pollutants. It would address the environmental, social and economic elements of this issue."

How Have Politicians Handled Things?

The Insight this issue has provided into the way our political system works, is, to some observers, the stuff of "Political Science 101.”

Back in the mid ‘90s, before being elected to the legislature, Stan Struthers was an active member of CCV, which was lobbying hard for RTOs. (Some even say he came up with the group's name!) Fast-forward to last year, when he became the Minister who let LP shut them down. (After that, Struthers was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture.)

When LP’s application to build its OSB plant was first being discussed, Rosanne Wowchuk was an NDP opposition critic, representing Swan River (which she still does), the riding where the plant is located. The Conservative government of Gary Filmon was serving its last term.

Like Struthers, Ms. Wowchuk also spoke out strongly for RTOs both at a formal CEC hearing and even in the legislature. So she and Struthers both may have been instrumental in having them installed in the first place. Since the NDP came to power, Ms. Wowchuk has served as Agriculture Minister, Deputy Premier and now, Minister of Finance.

This begs the question, what has changed in the past 15 years or so?

Neither Mr. Struthers nor Ms. Wowchuk has responded to my request for

comments. All Mr. Blaikie will say is, he’ll await the CEC's recommendations before

taking any action.

While the politicians may argue they are simply protecting jobs by making sure LP

continues to operate, others believe the corporation’s threat to shut down is an

empty one.

In a letter to the local paper, CCV wrote, this (economic argument) “contradicts reports about LP on the internet.” It says the corporation actually plans to expand business in the UK, Australia and Japan “as part of a concerted campaign to grow market share and capitalize on the retreat from the market by one of its competitors, Weyerhaeuser."

At the time of his report last fall, even Dr. Simon took note of how LP stocks were rebounding in value after being hit by the recession.

Meanwhile, it’s to be hoped those CEC recommendations, expected soon, may shed some light, not just more heat, on the situation.


Please also read - "Standing the Precautionary Principle on its Head."


Ed said…
If the pollution control devices have to be replaced it could be an opportunity for both sides. The government could subsidize the transition of the plant, through tax relief, to low or no VOC products, or an adhesive free product. Value could also be added by having the product FSC certified. I hope a positive solution can be found.