SooToday received the following letter from the chair of Clean North about pollution and Algoma Steel.
Recently several articles and letters published on news sites have focused on pollution from Algoma Steel.
The first on March 15, published on the National Observer website, noted that the steel mill has been given repeated exemptions to pollution emission regulations for benzene, benzo(a)pyrine, and particulates, all toxic pollutants that can cause cancer, lung disease, and other issues. (Note: A recently released McGill University study showed particulates are far more dangerous than previously thought.)
The National Observer article so alarmed a large group of Algoma University faculty, including several science professors, that they wrote a public letter to our MP Terry Sheehan and MPP Ross Romano to request urgent action on the high and hazardous level of dangerous emissions from the mill.
It’s worth noting that Sault Ste. Marie has one of the highest cancer rates in Ontario, and a 2019 research study found a strikingly high rate of acute myeloid leukemia in the P6C postal code around the plant.
A 2017 study found that people cycling around the mill had changes to autonomic nervous system control of the heart compared with those cycling near Sault College. In addition, a University of Chicago study found that globally, air pollution is more deadly than alcohol or cigarettes.
Clean North has been Sault Ste. Marie’s leading environmental group since 1989. We formed to bring curbside recycling to the Sault, spearheaded recycling of electronic waste and natural Christmas trees, and have grown and planted many trees in our area. While these and other Clean North activities have helped improve the health of people and the environment, their positive impact is dwarfed by the negative effects of years of air pollution above safe and legal limits.
Diverting solid waste is satisfying and tangible. We feel good when we see a load of electronics that contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals being recycled.
The problem with air pollution is most of us can’t see it. Those around the plant see it. They see the brown or black smoke coming out and the residue on their cars. But when you live further out from the mill, it’s easy to brush it off.
The reality is it’s still affecting you. Most of the city is downwind and downstream from the mill. If you hike on Whitefish Island, go shopping downtown or in Steelton, cycle the Hub Trail, fish the rapids, or eat fish from the rapids, it’s affecting you. Pollutants are carried on the air and in the water, and they fall onto the ground in our yards where our children and pets play and we grow vegetables.
Yes, the mill is moving ahead with converting to electric arc furnace (EAF) technology, which is supposed to be more green than traditional steel making. But it will be several years before that change is completed. So several more years of pollution above the provincial limits being sent out into the air we breathe.
In addition, EAFs are not without risk. They produce dioxins and furans, which have been linked to a wealth of health issues including cancer. City residents should ponder what their level of trust is in the mill and government protecting them from these pollutants over time, given their past track record.
Another area of concern is our local air pollution monitoring system has been sub-optimal. For years, the only independent monitoring station was at Sault College, outside the main area of impact of Algoma Steel. Our city and its people deserve a robust system that is independent from industry and has stations in the right places to ensure we have unbiased and accurate information about air quality and health hazards to people, especially those most at risk.
We recommend all city residents educate themselves about local pollution issues and keep asking questions of polluters as well as governments charged with protecting us. A flurry of concern for a few weeks is unlikely to have a sustained impact. There are two local initiatives, EcoSenshi and StackWatch SSM, that monitor and report on pollution events. Both have websites as well as Facebook pages that you can follow to learn more about what’s happening locally.
Staying informed can be challenging as what’s published or said is often conflicting. The Observer article and the letter from the Algoma University faculty members said the mill gets exemptions from provincial limits on polluting (and this is actually public knowledge through Environmental Registry of Ontario postings). A response letter from Algoma Steel said, “These are not exemptions, but practical solutions that allow us to continue to produce steel.” Note that the Hamilton Board of Health in Hamilton, Ont., in dealing with their local steel mill pollution issues, refers to them as exemptions as well.
This is why it’s so important for people to keep paying attention, reading, and asking questions of those whose job it is to keep us safe.
If you see pollution happen, report it to the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks (https://www.ontario.ca/page/report-pollution-and-spills). The more people who report, the better for all living in our area as well as our water, fish and wildlife.
Finally, jobs are important, but it’s also important, fair, and democratic for people to be questioning whether a local polluter being given repeated exemptions at the expense of human and environmental health is safe or acceptable. When those charged with keeping us safe fall short, we should hold them accountable.
Chair, Clean North
on behalf of the Clean North Executive