Sault Ste. Marie and area residents are concerned about the environment and their health.
Many wanted to receive assurances from Noront Resources Wednesday that the proposed ferrochrome plant will protect the air, water and earth, and not increase cancer rates in the region any further.
Some wanted to learn more about the process and proposal to alleviate any concerns while others just wanted the company to pack its bags and move elsewhere.
The range of emotions and comments are not new to Noront Resources. In fact, they are expected, company officials have said.
That’s why Noront launched the meet-and-greet, the first of many community open houses it expects to hosts as the proposed process, development of technology and proposal for the plant on Algoma Steel property unfolds, Noront CEO Alan Coutts told a group at the downtown event.
Hundreds of Sault and area residents attended the open house Wednesday asking a range of questions about the proposed plant about potential harm to the environment, to public health and about the process, among other things.
Devin Herrington, a student-teacher at White Pines Collegiate, brought some of his Grade 12 environmental management/geography students to the event so they could understand that there are many parts involved and that the issue can be divisive.
“I told them that they need to come here with an open mind. They need to listen, they need to ask questions and they have to hear what others have to say,” he said. “It’s useful for them to hear both sides of the issue and why people are taking those sides.”
Herrington said he believes that the process needs to occur and the process needs to evolve before individuals can give a definitive yes or no.
He’ll take the student trip experience back to his class to look at the geography and enviromatics, weighing the costs of the development, how it affects the environment and looking at the sustainability of it while also examining the economic impact and jobs.
“It’s not a cut and dry issue and I really want them to see that,” Herrington said.
Dr. Robert Suppes, the chair of a local physician group that has raised concerns about the detrimental effects of a ferrochrome facility on the health of residents and the environment, met with Noront in a special morning session.
To date, there are about 40 doctors and 10 professors who have signed letters of concern about the proposed plant.
Suppes said he saw a presentation made to council and the group received much information, some of which has alleviated some concerns and some of which has heightened concerns.
While the proposed technology is expected to be state-of-the-art, there is no data to prove that it works, he said.
Essentially, Suppes would like Noront to produce data and test results from the technology and make that available to public scrutiny.
Suppes said he was impressed by the presentation from Noront and its forthright answers.
“As long as they are open and forthcoming, we are willing to play ball,” he said.
But he warns that “unforeseen events” have happened in other plants around the world “and that is very concerning to me.”
Suppes said the physician group wants to continue the dialogue with Noront. He also wants to see some independent process in place to develop and assess the scientific data associated with the proposed technology.
“Some people in town say we’re against it. I’m not against it. We just want to see and review the data. I’m open to the process and I want to see the data and an independent process so we can make an informed decision as a community so that we’re not doing something that is going to harm us,” he said.
Suppes said it’s not a case of a “not in my backyard syndrome.” “It’s about wanting to do things in an appropriate environmentally sound fashion and recognizing that if there is a risk, creating a plant in the heart of a city near the Great Lakes, may not be the best place for it to be located.”
But others don’t want the process to evolve.
Jasmine Syrette, of the Rankin First Nation, told Coutts that she has a duty to the tribal people to respect and protect the land.
“You shouldn’t be here in town talking to people. You should be on the reserve talking to band members,” she said. “And all of us will come out and say, ‘No, we don’t want you here.’ We have a duty to protect this land.”
Syrette didn’t leave the discussion feeling any sense of confidence that Coutts or his company will protect the water, air or land, that her and her young daughter “dance” on.
“No matter how many promises they make us, they will not be able to guarantee that this plant will not hurt the land,” she said. “It will be another steel plant. My mother lives near there and she can’t open her windows.”
Syrette says the steel plant was likely built without the permission of First Nations people but reconciliation and treaty rights are a lot more prevalent now and need to be abided to.
Syrette said she wants her chief and council to contact Noront Resources and have them host a meeting on the reserve first.
Carol Garson, a Sault Ste. Marie resident, said she spends time in her garden over the summer and wants to eat healthy vegetables, not ones that become toxic from any leeching from the proposed plant.
“I value my house, I value my community,” she said.
Garson agreed that while technology may have developed from the time the steel plant was built, she hasn’t heard any guarantees that the black dust she finds in her Korah Road house won’t get worse with another industrial plan nearby.
“These are the only Great Lakes and fresh water lakes we have,” she said. “If there are no guarantees, and something happens, where is our clean water going to come from?”
With family members working in various skilled trades, she applauds the fact that a ferrochrome plant will create jobs, but the greater fear of what could happen to the community outweighs the prospect of increased employment.
“We’re just starting this process,” Coutts said. “We have the site and we have our engineering firm who is going to design it, but the house hasn’t been built yet. The plans are not complete.”
For Robert Lefave, the importance of the Great Lakes waterways is top of mind.
“No matter what type of technology you have, if you have an employee like (Homer) Simpson, the Great Lakes are done,” he said. “It’s the largest freshwater body on the planet. We already have enough pollution. Go someplace else, not on the Great Lakes,” he said.
Mary-Lynn Murphy, of Goulais, focused her questions on the technology that will be implemented at the plant.
Michael McCaffrey, global director Ferroalloys Associate with Hatch, told a crowd that only conceptual drawings have been completed and much work still needs to be done.
There will be no tailing ponds at the proposed plant and the slag will be shipped offsite and sold using the same infrastructure and facilities as Algoma Steel. Any chromium in the slag will be measured, he said.
“The ferrochrome industry is very mature. Yes, it has had a checkered history and it has had its hazards but those are well known and we have the mechanisms to address them,” he said. “We are not performing an experiment on Sault Ste. Marie.”
Murphy remains concerned. “I don’t think anything is fail-safe,” she said carefully. “He wasn’t really telling us that it will be fail-safe, but he does have a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. I’m not sure I have as much confidence as them.”
Murphy said the most difficult part is that there are no comparators. The Finland plant has much older technology and different processes and it’s unclear whether the monitoring results or release of chromium 6 will be released to the public and environmental standards of plants elsewhere can’t be compared to Canada’s.
“I haven’t made up mind,” she said of the proposed plant. “I want to get more data. I need to do more research.”
McCaffrey said Noront needs to be responsible wherever it decides to build its plant and is committed to a full and complete environmental process. He agreed that the Sault Ste. Marie site is more challenging because of its proximity to neighbourhoods.
And that is what has Murphy concerned.
“Environmental laws are only as good as their enforcement,” she noted.
Another Sault Ste. Marie resident, who would only identify herself as S. Greenwood, said she’s willing to let the process play out, but will do her part to stay informed along that path.
The environment plays a huge factor in any future decision she makes, especially since she resides near a sewage treatment plant, she said.
While some are advocating for the jobs and skilled trades a ferrochrome facility will bring to the Sault, Greenwood said that’s not good enough a reason for her to support it. “The environment is number one.”
Bill Cole, a Sault Ste. Marie resident proposed that a comprehensive environmental assessment be created by a group of community members so that all the questions of the community can be asked, answered and quantified.
A representative panel of the community could right the terms of the assessment so that it is unbiased and above minimum standards.
Coutts appeared interested in the idea and Cole was pleased with his response.
As a scientist himself, Cole said he is skeptical of a profit-motivated company. Balancing public health, the environment and the economy all has to be factored into the equation.
“I’m concerned the process is going ahead without evidence and I’m concerned that we have community leaders who have thrown us in because of the prospects of jobs,” he said.
Noront Resources has committed to a thorough community engagement process and has said it will not establish a ferrochrome facility in Sault Ste. Marie if the community does not want it.