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Will a real environmental assessment ever be done for the ferrochrome smelter?

Crane Institute for Sustainability wants to know
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Kathie Brosemer, a director of the Crane Institute for Sustainability, speaks on Sept. 28, 2019 at a grassroots meeting opposing the proposed NorOnt Resources ferrochrome smelter. Darren Taylor/SooToday

A Sault-based non-profit dedicated to environmental sustainability is questioning whether a true, comprehensive, environmental assessment will ever be conducted for the ferrochrome processing facility proposed by NorOnt Resources Ltd. on land currently owned by Algoma Steel.

The following media release, issued Wednesday by the Crane Institute for Sustainability, calls on NorOnt to clarify what kind of environmental assessment it's planning for the controversial billion-dollar smelter.

"The Crane Institute vision is to create an exceptional learning and demonstration environment within Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma that is a motivational catalyst for transformative change, fosters sustainability that ensures human activity operates within ecological limits, promotes social inclusion, participation and discourse, advances new social frameworks and structures in which sustainability and equity are default, and connects with global social and economic transitions," says the group's web site.

The institute's directors include Kathie Brosemer, environmental director for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a 2002 recipient of the Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit, the city's highest honour.

Other directors include Carmen Niessen, a retired Sault College sociology professor with a master's degree in environmental studies, and White Pines geography teacher Kevin Magill.

Substantial grassroots opposition to the proposed smelter surfaced last month after 20 local physicians expressed concerns in a letter sent to SooToday.

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, more than 8,700 individuals had signed an online petition: Say no to ferrochrome production in Sault Ste. Marie.

Earlier today, the City of Sault Ste. Marie and Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp. issued a statement correcting "misinformation" about the project.

"Noront will be hosting an introductory public session on Oct. 23, 2019 where anyone with an interest in learning more about the project can attend the session and hear directly from the company," the city said.

"This meeting will be followed by many more public meetings over the next five years with more detailed information being provided to the public as it becomes available."

Here's the Crane Institute for Sustainability statement as issued to SooToday on Wednesday:

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We hear environmental assessment. We need to hear Impact Assessment Act

Media articles and proponent social media posts about the potential for a proposed smelter in our community give a clear impression that an environmental assessment of the impacts will be conducted.

However, close scrutiny of these statements suggest the contrary, more accurately reflecting adherence to environmental regulations and corporate assessment policies, and not any legislated environmental assessment process in Canada or Ontario.

An ‘environmental assessment’ (EA) is a precise term that holds meaning in both federal and provincial law. 

It is a rigorous process that investigates the potential environmental (broadly defined) impacts (both adverse and beneficial) from a proposed project in advance of project work being undertaken, and identifies specific actions to avoid, mitigate or compensate for adverse impacts, and enhance beneficial impacts. 

EAs are critical for any project (not just those mandated by law) since their downstream benefits outweigh upfront costs. EAs also lend credibility to proponents by demonstrating their willingness to work with the community to ensure a successful project. 

Environmental assessment in Canada is legislated in most jurisdictions. 

Federally, the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) guides decision-making on environmental assessments, and in Ontario EA is governed by the Environmental Assessment Act.

Regulations, on the other hand, are not the same as legislation (acts); they are in fact extremely different in law.

Regulations are approved based on an act that has already been passed.  

For this reason, one act (such as the IAA) can have numerous regulations, and any project may encounter numerous regulatory needs across numerous acts (again, only one of these acts might be the IAA). 

The IAA, for example, is legislation that defines how to develop, plan and conduct the environmental assessment process for a significant and substantial undertaking in Canada. 

Within that act are various regulations, such as the Regulations Designating Physical Projects (which defines the types and specifics of activities that must be included in an environmental assessment). Regulations help define and implement the smaller details of that undertaking once all the studies and planning have been completed.  

Legislation and regulation serve extremely different, although mutually reinforcing, purposes.

More worrying and problematic are corporate assessment practices. 

Corporate environmental assessment policies are unlegislated, unregulated, unenforceable internal policies that are substantially and significantly less rigorous, comprehensive, and detailed than federal or provincial legislation or regulation, and are almost always defined to ensure the financial viability of the corporate entity. 

Referring to a corporate ‘environmental assessment’ practice in the case of a potential smelter proposal can be confusing, leading many to believe that a rigorous federally or provincially legislated process will be conducted. That could be considered deceptive, and counter to the interests of the community. 

Importantly, any corporate assessment practice will fall far short of a federal or provincial assessment process in rigour, scope, depth, community engagement, legitimacy, and commitments, and any results will not be legally binding and rarely are the process and results transparent. 

Predictably, ‘consultations’ (such as that planned for late October by the proponent) under such practices are often used to market a proposal and manufacture consent, not identify or prevent, mitigate or compensate for adverse environmental or health concerns or foster sustainability.

Applying these terms interchangeably is misleading, unethical and irresponsible. 

Not understanding the differences between these terms is unprofessional, and it identifies that a proponent is inadequately versed in key knowledge areas that will be crucial to the successful execution and implementation of any project.

All evidence suggests that ‘environmental assessment’ inferred from media statements and social media posts for the potential proposed smelter refers only to regulatory measures and corporate practices, which we all expect.

To some, these statements and claims might also suggest, but do not clearly state, a legislated environmental assessment process, which everyone is also expecting.

Adhering only to the regulations and corporate assessment practices needed to construct any potential smelter will spectacularly fail to identify, discuss, investigate, assess, mitigate, avoid, compensate for or adequately plan to manage the majority of the potential adverse (and beneficial) environmental and health (or any other) impacts of community concern. 

That is why EA exists; to fill this crucial and important project planning and community engagement gap. 

We believe this is what the community expects; and we do not believe this is what the proponent is promising based on a careful reading of media reporting of statements and claims.

Accordingly, the claims and assertions made by proponents have unfortunately led many in the community to gravely exaggerated beneficial conclusions and expectations for this potential proposal, and for many others to simply drop their guard.

The only discernible substance to these article statements can be found insofar as they tend to deflect public concern and generate a clear misunderstanding, or rather confusion, of the process the proponent is claiming they will undertake. 

The claims also, intentionally or not, generate community divisions. To all apparent observations, imprecise claims, and the neglect of media to challenge these claims, serve little more than to confuse the public, silence dissent, and spread inaccurate information.

Do these practices inspire confidence in a proponent, and are these practices representative of a company, that a community would want to entrust to manage the environmental and health risks of a sizeable industrial project to be located beside residential, and in many cases, vulnerable, neighbours?

Unarguably, these confusing claims made in the media need to be clarified.

Therefore, will the proponent go on record by clearly stating that they will conduct a formal comprehensive environmental assessment as prescribed under either one of the current (as presently defined today) federal or provincial environmental assessment acts, even if not required to do so by law under those acts, should they advance a proposal for a smelter?

To be clear, will the proponent publicly proclaim to voluntarily agree to undertake a comprehensive environmental assessment process as laid out under the federal Impact Assessment Act or Ontario Environmental Assessment Act?

Further, since many of the expressed community concerns from this potential proposal are understandably derived from health anxieties, and health encompasses a comprehensive suite of determinants, will the proponent – as part of, or in addition to, a legislated comprehensive environmental assessment – demonstrate leadership and vision and commit to undertake a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) guided by a steering committee from academe, the public sector and not-for-profits?

The response to these questions would be evidence of level of commitment to this community, and clearly demonstrate the confidence level in the ability to minimise the adverse environmental and health impacts from a proposal, and the degree of willingness to work with the community to prevent, mitigate or compensate for adverse impacts.

A formal, legislated, comprehensive EA is not only important given the sensitivities of this proposal, it is the minimum necessary for the public to see this as a legitimate process. 

A HIA would raise that minimum bar.

Without these processes, the community will never know about, much less understand what the potential impacts will be (from design to post-closure), and no plan to avoid, manage, mitigate or compensate for those impacts will exist.

That the most recent press release was made on the global day of strike for the climate is at best disingenuous.

Any announcement made on a Friday is intended to be shielded from public scrutiny, and to do this on a well-publicized day of action that fundamentally goes against the grain of extractivism in the Ring of Fire is an inexcusable oversight for any organisation that wishes to partner for the welfare of a community. 

Local media should challenge this proposal with the critique it is due, and its relation to the destruction of the northern lungs of our planet.

Failure to catch these oversights on a global strike for the climate day is simply astonishing.

On a final note, pacifying statements from any authoritative source (including media and politicians) who are  unfamiliar with and uninformed about the EA processes in Canada can only serve to legitimise a highly controversial process insofar as they “confuse the public, silence dissent, and spread inaccurate information.”

We especially direct this message to local media who, we believe, should have a far better grasp of the role of media in our democratic institutions, despite their corporate allegiances. 

Alas, then again, perhaps it is we who underestimate their lucidity.  We prepared this letter in part to respond to these risks by clarifying some misperceptions, and requesting the proponent make clear their intentions.

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans six decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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