by Conor Mihell

Over a mere 10-year period, Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff smelter has showered Sudbury with a staggering 674 tonnes of carcinogenic nickel particulates – the equivalent of about 850 pickup truck loads. Now the mining giant is asking for relief from new Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) regulations for air quality, which come into effect in February 2010. Inco claims it will not be able to afford to install the required emissions-monitoring equipment at its Copper Cliff smelter to meet the MOE’s start date; instead, the company has applied for an alternative standard of emissions that allows for levels that are more than seven times higher than the one in the new provincial regulation.

In 2005, the MOE replaced air quality regulations dating back to the 1960s with a new monitoring and pollutant-dispersal modelling system that is based “on the protection of health and environment,” says Cathy Grant, an MOE engineering specialist. She says previous legislation created implementation headaches because it bundled air quality science with technological and economic concerns. Under the new Air Pollution–Local Air Quality regulations, which fall under the umbrella of the Environmental Protection Act, “science is separated from implementation,” says Grant.

Inco, however, intends to take advantage of an implementation feasibility clause that allows industry to propose temporary, site-specific alternatives to the provincial standards. The company is asking for a nickel soil concentration threshold of 15 micrograms per cubic metre; the new provincial regulation specifies a threshold of two micrograms per cubic metre. Currently, the request for exemption is posted on the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights website, and public comment on it is to close on April 10. Grant insists that if any alternatives are accepted, they will be “time-limited approvals with the expectation of continuous improvement.”

According to Brennain Lloyd, the coordinator of Northwatch, a coalition of northern Ontario environmental organizations, the proposed emissions “holiday” could become yet another example of Inco bending regulations. Worse, Inco is now contradicting its own commitments. In the Sudbury Soils Study, an Inco funded, multi-year assessment of the impacts of mining in the Sudbury area that was released last spring, Lloyd says Inco pledged to meet provincial laws. Now, “they’re asking to continue a history of getting away with not meeting provincial regulations,” says Lloyd. “The soil study was a good place to start, but I’m afraid it’s being forgotten.”