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Western Quebec smelter will reduce arsenic emissions to five times provincial norm

MONTREAL — Arsenic emissions at a western Quebec copper smelter will be reduced to five times the provincial norm by 2017 at a cost of around $500 million, the plant’s owner said Thursday.
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Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette speaks to the media at a news conference Friday, April 23, 2021, in Montreal. The owner of a western Quebec smelter says it will reduce arsenic emissions to five times the provincial norm by 2027, a level required by the provincial government. Charette said the Horne smelter would have to reduce emissions to 15 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air within five years or close. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Arsenic emissions at a western Quebec copper smelter will be reduced to five times the provincial norm by 2017 at a cost of around $500 million, the plant’s owner said Thursday.

Glencore, the Switzerland-based mining company that owns the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., said it will ask for government aid to help fund the required changes at the factory, which is currently certified to emit 100 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air — 33 times the provincewide standard.

"All companies, when they invest as much money as we are going to do, are always in talks with the government, that is what's happening on our side; we are at the beginning of the talks," Claude Bélanger, the chief operating officer of Glencore's North American copper operations, told reporters. 

However, he said the company has the means to fund the improvements itself. "That's why our teams have started, we are not waiting for the government," he said. 

Once the work is finished, the plant will be "one of the lowest-emitting copper smelters in the world," Bélanger added. 

Glencore's operations in the city more than 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal have been a cause for serious concern after studies have shown that local residents have higher rates of lung cancer than the provincial average.

On Monday, Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said the Horne smelter would have to reduce emissions to 15 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air within five years or it will have to close, following a recommendation from the province's public health institute. 

Bélanger said a company analysis shows that the air in 84 per cent of Rouyn-Noranda will have arsenic levels at, or below, the provincial standard of three nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre in 2027. However, smelter managers couldn't say when the air quality in the entire town could reach the provincewide standard.

Quebec Premier François Legault said the provincial government has not yet received a request for aid from the smelter. Legault said that while the goal is for the factory to attain the provincial norm, the province's public health institute has said the new cap is safe for residents.

"The experts say that at 15 nanograms it is safe for the public — three is even better, but at 15 it's safe," Legault told reporters at a campaign event in Ste-Adèle, Que.

"The Horne smelter — that's 650 jobs paying on average $107,000 a year," Legault said, adding the plant supports another 2,200 indirect jobs in the region.

"I think the community also has the right to say, 'Am I able to live with a minimal risk for a certain number of years or not?' For me, we are at the step where the people of Rouyn-Noranda should have their say," Legault said.

A public consultation on the plant's new certification permit — which must be reviewed every five years — is scheduled to take place this fall. 

Émilise Lessard-Therrien, who represents the area in the Quebec legislature as a member of the Québec solidaire party, said the new cap is still too high and the health of the people of Rouyn-Noranda is being sacrificed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2022.

Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press