Thursday, 7 January 2010

Standing the Precautionary Principle on its Head

The Manitoba Government Celebrated '09 by Allowing Industrial Pollutants to be Released in the Swan Valley - by Larry Powell
(Double-click headline for latest story on this topic.)

It was a fateful decision.

One year ago tomorrow, Stan Struthers, who was then Manitoba's Minister of Conservation, said "yes" to a request from Louisiana Pacific Canada Ltd (LP).

As a cost-cutting measure, the corporation wanted to permanently do away with devices called regenerative thermal oxidizers, or RTOs, which have helped control toxic emissions from its plant at Minitonas since it opened in the mid '90s.

The plant makes "oriented strand board," a type of sheeting used in house construction. It is made from hardwood trees the corporation harvests over a wide area of western Manitoba, including the Duck Mountains.

"Evening in Duck Mountains."

Painting by Mary Jane Eichler.
That permission from the government, first said to be temporary, set in motion a series of events which has now dragged on for a full year.

Yet the central question, should the equipment be shut-down permanently or put back online, has yet to be answered.

The government instructed an advisory agency, the Clean Environment Commission (CEC) to investigate the merits of LP's application. The CEC heard from witnesses both for and against in the summer. It was expected to make recommendations to the Government this fall. But it has decided it wants more information from the company.

According to "Concerned Citizens of the Valley"(CCV), a group opposed to LP's application, the Commission wants the company to "complete air dispersion modeling that will conform to Manitoba guidelines."

Margaret Romak of CCV says, "This begs the question; why did LP submit modelling that was not up to standard?"

The CEC’s request for more information means its report has been delayed until spring.

And that government decision last January means those pollution controls remain shut down in the meantime.

So Just How Much Pollutant is Being Released?

*Dr. Charles Simon of the Florida-based company, Precision Analytical Laboratories Inc., estimates, without controls, the mill 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 they 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 release almost 400 tonnes of another family of emissions, Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) in a year. That's 100 times what would have otherwise been the case.

HAPs, which include pollutants such as benzene, can cause cancer and birth defects.
The chances of ozone and smog formation, he adds, will also be "significantly greater" if LP's application is granted.

While Simon is not immediately available for comment, it is not believed he took into account that the mill has been operating at reduced capacity for some time now. Since that would obviously result in fewer emissions, his numbers would need to be reduced by an unknown factor.
Dr.Simon was one of three specialists in industrial pollution hired by Concerned Citizens of the Valley, the Boreal Forest Network and Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre. They examined the claims made and methods used by LP to support its application. The citizen's groups oppose LP’s application, saying it will harm air quality in the valley.

The findings of the three experts have been submitted to the CEC for consideration.

Dr.Simon says he understands every corporation has a responsibility to its shareholders to make money.

But he adds "In my experience with forest products companies, the strong motivation to externalize air pollutant costs (make someone else pay) can only be overcome by regulation.".

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.

Simon believes a bioreactor could also replace pollution controls known as wet electrostatic precipators, WESPS. These help control particulate matter coming from the mill. The company has kept these in operation and are not included in its application.

Bioreactors are often metal cylinders which generate massive amounts of bacterial activity. This break down harmful substances before they can escape from the plant.

If there is a bright side to the closure of the old RTOs, Dr. Simon recognizes that at least the greenhouse gasses they produced have now been eliminated. That's because they needed large amounts of natural gas to keep them heated.

But bioreactors, he notes, don't produce greenhouse gases at all in their operation.

As CCV puts it, "This technology 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."

“The Province granted 'temporary' discontinuation of the RTO pollution control system to LP, in January 2009, in spite of the Clean Environment Commission’s 1994 recommedation that RTOs be installed as a condition of the company’s operation in the province,” said Susanne McCrea of the Boreal Forest Network.
"They now want to keep the RTOs offline AND increase their emissions, without exploring newer, less expensive pollution control options," McCrea added. "Here we are a full year later, still waiting for the province to take action to protect public health. "

Another of the experts, **Dr. Gordon Brown, finds LP’s application falls short on a number of counts.

* It didn't place air pollution monitors in the right places. This finding confirms the position of CCV who have been sharply critical of LP's move to place the monitors upwind of the plant, where they could detect only limited amounts of the true emission levels.

* It didn't take into account possible health effects from odours the plant produces.

* And it didn't consider that inhaling the air is not the only way human health can be put at risk. Local food and water may also provide pathways for pollutants. And these pathways were not analyzed.

In all, Brown finds the way LP calculated human health risks did not meet acceptable industry standards.

The third specialist, ***David Chadder believes;

* LP did not properly document air quality impacts.

• Failed to meet Government of Manitoba or industry standards.

* Did not account for all the "hazardous contaminants of interest."

What do the People Think?

Dr.Simon talked to people living in Swan River and elsewhere in the valley in August.

"Every citizen with whom I spoke first mentioned their concern for jobs of their compatriots. LP's threat to close the mill if forced to operate the RTOs.....has been taken seriously.....The citizens appear to be faced with the choice to either agree to allow their air shed to be polluted far beyond what any comparable community would have to bear in the US (similar plants there are required to operate with the best pollution controls available), or see their family and friends suffer the catastrophe of job loss with immediate cessation of family income that have been present for nearly 15 years."

“Paths Less Travelled” asked the new Minister of Conservation, Bill Blaikie, the previous Minister, Stan Struthers and the MLA for Swan River, Rosann Wowchuk, to comment on this story. They did not respond.


* Simon has 33 years experience in the field of emissions from industries such as wood product plants. He's done consulting work for government departments in both Canada and the US. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, Master of Science degree in Environmental Analytical Chemistry and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Physical Chemistry.

** Brown, Ph.D., P.Biol., received his first two degrees from the University of Manitoba and now works for the Alberta office of the consulting firm, Intrinsik Envronmental Sciences Inc. of ON. It specializes in human health risk assessment.

*** Chadder, Hon. B.Sc., QEP, is with RWDI Air, Inc., based in about half-a-dozen Canadian cities. The company works with industry and governments to solve various problems of air quality, noise and other hazards. His experience with environmental consulting dates back to 1978.


AUTHOR’S COMMENT - Will the Precautionary Principle ever be adopted in Manitoba?

The Precautionary Principle has been defined as the "Magna Carta" of enlightened environmentalists and decision-makers. It would require that any product, development or practice even suspected of causing harm, must be kept off the market or not allowed to proceed until there is proof that the harm does not exist. In other words, the burden of proof would be on the proponent of such product, etc. to prove it is safe, rather than on the public to prove down the road, that it is not.

Instead of asking, how little harm can we do with any given project, or product, decision-makers seem to be asking, how much harm can we get away with?

Sound harsh?

Well, let's look at the LP story.

If the Manitoba government had heard LP's request, then put its governmental machinery into motion to explore the merits of that request, that would have been one thing.

But it did not.

Its first reaction was to give LP what it wanted, then try to figure out after the fact whether that was the right thing to do!

Surely that is the Precautionary Principle in reverse!

No one can fault the CEC for taking as long as it has. It obviously has many things to consider before making its final decision.

But, if the government believed LP was serious about its threat to close down the mill if it had to continue to pay to keep the pollution controls running, were there still not alternatives to what it did?

No government could ignore the consequences of losing an employer of some 200 workers.

So why didn’t it find out if the threat was real and justified?

If it was, could it not have offered LP some kind of public assistance, at least temporarily, until the plant weathered the current economic recession?

As far as anyone knows, this was never considered.


That is the best and most understandable summary of the situation I have seen. Thank you Larry. And you Dan for bringing it to my attention.
I am always a little surprised that the US has higher standards than we do on anything, especially if $$ are involved, but what would LP be asked to do if this mill were south of the border? Are we out of line in our expectations, or are we being treated as a third world nation and source of a cheap natural resource? I agree that LP is a boon to the local economy but in A FAB Country (Anything For A Buck) often the real price of a product should include the clean-up of harmful sequelae, or better still, avoiding them. Often cheaper in the long run and less stressful.

Andy Maxwell
You've certainly done your research and homework on this article. I worked for many years at Canfor's Panel & Fibre facility in New Westminster. We made panel board and raw baled fibre from waste wood. We had to be VERY environmental about this as we were situated in the midst of a large city and near a major hospital. We couldn't get away with sloppy environmental standards because of this. Many mills are in out-of-the-way "Company" towns. Most the locals are employed there and the small towns depend on the mill(s). Often with fierce loyalty because of self interest. It allows many companies to get away with environmental murder. Outa sight; outa mind?

Andy Mathisen

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