Quebec public health wants smelter's arsenic emissions cut to 5 times provincial norm

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MONTREAL — Quebec’s public health director is recommending that arsenic levels in the air of a western Quebec city be reduced significantly, but even then they would remain five times higher than the provincial standard.

Dr. Luc Boileau told reporters in Rouyn-Noranda Wednesday that average emissions of 15 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air would be a safe level for people in the city until air quality is “eventually” improved to the provincial standard of three nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre.

“We have to obtain, eventually, the level that is required by the Quebec norms,” he said.

However, in the meantime, he said the 15-nanogram level would allow for “strong protection for the health of unborn babies and young children” and would reduce the risk of lung cancer for the entire population.

The city, more than 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, is home to the Horne copper smelter, which is currently allowed to emit 100 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air — 33 times the provincial standard. That agreement, which must be renewed every five years, is currently under review by the province.

Boileau said the 15-nanogram cap is his formal recommendation to the provincial government on the smelter’s emissions. He said the new cap should be reached “as soon as possible,” but he did not provide a deadline for when he hopes it will be reached — or when the smelter’s emissions will reach the provincial norm.

The changes required are complex, he said, and "it might take a long time, so maybe a couple of years."

Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said he will consider Boileau’s recommendations and the emissions cap he plans to place on the smelter will be “much more stringent” than the current level.

“We don’t want to compromise the health of the public, so if public health is talking to us about 15 nanograms, we can’t not consider that advice,” he said.

Glencore, the multinational mining company that owns the smelter, said in a statement after Boileau’s news conference that it was aware of the recommendations.

"We will be unveiling our comprehensive action plan in the coming days, which we hope will address the concerns raised to date, while contributing to the sustainable development of our community," said Alexis Segal, a spokesman for Glencore Canada.

Studies by Quebec's public health institute have shown that residents of the city have higher lung cancer rates than people in the rest of the province and predicted that if the concentration of arsenic in the foundry’s emissions isn’t reduced, between one and 14 additional residents will develop lung cancer by 2040.

The new recommendation would result in a fourfold reduction in the risk of lung cancer among people living in the area around the smelter, "a level considered acceptable in similar North American settings," the institute said Wednesday.

Dr. Frédéric Bonin, a physician who practises in Rouyn-Noranda, said the new recommended level is "a step in the right direction, but it is very insufficient." He wants the provincial government to apply the three-nanogram standard.

"We have made bad decisions over the last 40 years, the population of Rouyn-Noranda has paid the price and it should not continue to pay the price for bad political decisions," he said in an interview.

The smelter, which has been in operation since 1927, employs around 650 people.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press