Regulators cut a deal with Ontario steel mill

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Sault Ste. Marie's Bayview neighbourhood is a stone's throw from the Algoma Steel mill, which releases cancer-causing pollution into the surrounding air. Photo by Violet Aubertin / Canada's National Observer

John Yukich has lived for almost six decades in Bayview, Sault Ste. Marie, a place where the direction of the wind separates good days from bad.

On bad days, the neighbourhood is blanketed by air pollutants from the nearby Algoma Steel mill that are linked to a variety of health risks, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Yukich relies on his central air conditioning when air quality is wretched, and he describes living in Bayview as “terrible” and “scary.”

He’s right to worry.

Research from around the world has proven air pollution poses a serious risk to human health, including links to premature deaths and even stillbirths. In Canada, too, research is highlighting the sizable economic impacts of air pollution.

Ontario began enforcing stricter standards for specific air pollutants linked to negative health outcomes in 2016.

Since then, Algoma has exceeded provincial air quality standards with permission from Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP). The ministry grants exemptions to some companies that can’t meet the standards on the condition they implement an action plan to reasonably reduce emissions over time. MECP then assesses compliance through mathematical modelling that predicts the annual maximum concentration of pollutants released into the air.

Algoma currently has three regulatory exemptions, two for carcinogenic air pollutants benzene and benzo(a)pyrene and another for particulate matter. These so-called “site specific standards” permit the company to drastically exceed annual air quality limits.

The company met its prescribed limits until 2020, when it was expected to have reduced emissions and a lower limit was supposed to take effect. But for the past two years, it’s blown past these lower limits while managing to avoid prosecution.

Ontario began enforcing stricter standards for specific air pollutants in 2016 but has granted Algoma permission to exceed those standards. Photo by Violet Aubertin / Canada's National Observer

In 2020, Algoma’s modelling exceeded its limits on benzene and benzo(a)pyrene by 162 and 119 per cent, respectively.

In addition to mathematical modelling, the ministry uses ambient air quality data gathered every 12 days by a third party on behalf of Algoma. Recent measurements from a monitoring station in Bayview show even higher emissions.

The average measurements of benzo(a)pyrene from Bayview in the first two quarters of 2022 “could be interpreted as being 136 and 324 times higher than the ambient air quality criteria,” MECP said in a statement. The ministry said it is taking steps to better understand the recent “elevated measurements” recorded at the station.

All recorded instances where air quality limits were exceeded will be reviewed, the statement said, noting companies are required to report instances of non-compliance. Depending on the severity of non-compliance, responses can include “education, voluntary action plans and mandatory measures, such as orders, tickets, and prosecution.”

Chapter 1

Hope on the horizon, but pollution in the present

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Bayview residents like John Yukich always knew air quality in the neighbourhood was poor, however it only recently became clear how much pollution Algoma's steel mill is emitting. Photo by Violet Aubertin / Canada's National Observer

Sault Ste. Marie residents have long been aware of poor air quality.

But it wasn’t until late 2021 that it became clear just how bad things really are.

A review of Algoma’s emissions modelling showed air pollution from the plant had been underestimated all along. According to the ministry, the discrepancy was the result of updated meteorological conditions and a new land-use designation that labelled the area rural instead of urban. These changes mean that air pollution is more concentrated than was previously assumed, and therefore, residential neighbourhoods like Bayview have been exposed to greater potential health risks.

That revelation casts doubt on the accuracy of previous environmental reporting and uncovered the yawning gap between provincial air quality standards and what city residents are actually breathing.

But after discovering the new information, instead of forcing Algoma to lower emissions, MECP simply lowered the bar, allowing the company to reapply for greater exemptions.

The company’s air standard for benzo(a)pyrene is 400 times the provincial standard; it’s now applying for an exemption that’s 530 times the provincial standard.

The company’s air standard for benzene is almost five times the provincial standard, but it’s now applying for one that’s almost nine times the provincial standard.

Infographic by Ata Ojani

If approved, Algoma will be allowed to pollute at these higher levels until 2026. After that, the company must meet a new lower limit that's still higher than the previous exemption.

From a health perspective, the ministry stated it recognizes exposure to benzo(a)pyrene is “the key driver of health risk” and therefore considers these emissions a priority. Community exposures “above the air standard does not mean adverse health effects will occur,” the ministry wrote in a statement. It does, however, mean “the risk may increase.”

According to the company, its current applications for regulatory exemptions simply reflect MECP’s new emissions modelling requirements. The actual emissions are not increasing, said Brenda Stenta, Algoma’s communications manager.

Stenta also insists “Algoma has made significant, progressive improvements” since 2016. The company’s environmental reporting boasts improvements in fugitive emissions such as leaks from doors and lids.

Hope for Sault residents is on the horizon.

Algoma Steel is investing $700 million for new electric arc furnaces that eliminate coal from its production process. The move has been spurred by impressive financial incentives from the federal and provincial governments, reflecting the integral role of the coal-intensive industry in emission reduction targets. Based on data from 2019, Algoma Steel was the 11th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada (and the second largest in Ontario).

Bayview residents can expect a full phaseout of coal by 2029, and the company says, so far, everything is on schedule.

Chapter 2

Pollution could get worse before it gets better

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David Trowbridge worries air pollution from the Algoma Steel mill will take at least three years to meaningfully improve. Photo by Violet Aubertin / Canada's National Observer

Still, without maintenance and repair of aging infrastructure during the transition, some Bayview residents fear air quality could get worse before it gets better.

Mike DaPrat is president of United Steelworkers Local 2251, the union that represents approximately 2,000 hourly workers at Algoma. Based on previous experience, he questions the MECP’s ability to enforce air quality standards.

Hey says the company has resisted when the union pushes it “to maintain existing anti-pollution equipment.” He also alleges that some of the company’s infrastructure has “deteriorated immensely” over time. Since “existing technology is not maintained at a 100 per cent level,” he reckons he knows what will happen to equipment slated for retirement.

“It’ll go to shit.”

Stenta says the company “will continue to maintain [its] ... assets in accordance with [its] established maintenance program as their reliable and safe operation are critical to our transition to electric arc steelmaking technology.”

David Trowbridge is the longest-serving public member of the company’s community liaison committee, a retired Sault College professor and co-author of a 2007 report about air pollution in Bayview.

He applauds the company’s efforts to reduce emissions.

David Trowbridge acknowledges Algoma's efforts to reduce air pollution but worries it will continue to be a problem for years to come. Photo by Violet Aubertin / Canada's National Observer

Nonetheless, he’s troubled by the fact that overall emissions are worse than anyone knew. Until 2026, when the company’s “oldest and most leak-prone” infrastructure is retired, the emission levels will remain substantial, he argues.

Stenta says emissions “are expected to remain pretty much the same until 2026,” after which they’ll see a decrease due to the gradual retirement of infrastructure. The MECP concurs, noting “the predicted maximum levels of contaminants are not expected to vary much from current levels until 2026.”

Residents like Wendy Bergeron, who’s lived in Bayview for almost a decade and is one of Algoma’s closest neighbours, moved to the neighbourhood willingly but underestimated the degree to which air pollution would compromise her family’s quality of life.

She doesn’t have breathing issues, but she worries about others who are constantly exposed to poor air quality, including grandchildren who live with her. She’ll sometimes limit their time playing outdoors, especially when she notices a “haze around the air … coming from the plant.”

As a group of Bayview residents enjoy some faint sunshine on their patio, a man peeks around the corner to check on his child playing nearby. When he hears the topic of discussion — air pollution — he responds with a sarcastic grin.

“It’s just steam.”

By his own account, he’s a relatively rare sight in Bayview: a steelworker. Steelworkers typically avoid moving to Bayview, he explains: “They know what comes out of there, and it’s not good stuff.”

Fearful of potential repercussions, he speaks on the condition of anonymity. He’s been at the company, and in the neighbourhood, for several years and sees both sides of the fence.

“We get hit a lot harder here than anywhere else,” he says.

When asked what he wants policymakers to know about his neighbourhood, Yukich offers this plea: “We need help in Bayview, real bad. It’s just sad. They just forgot about us.”

Despite the desperate tone, Bayview is a neighbourhood defined by grit.

It’s the kind of grit exhibited by people who are tired of excuses and speak plainly.

But it’s also the kind of grit that falls from the sky.