Nickel is the key to the electric vehicle transition. Is mining making Canadians sick?

The port district of Limoilou in Quebec, on August 15, 2022. Limoilou is next to the international port of Quebec, where the mined nickel is transported.

Growing up in the port district of Limoilou in Quebec City, Joanne Boutet, 65, says she suffered from asthma as a child. Almost everyone in his class did. But when her family moved to Charlesbourg, a more affluent area of ​​the city to the north, she remembers being one of the few to have respiratory problems.

When Ms Boutet returned as an adult, the eczema began to spread across her face and she suffered a severe asthma attack which landed her in hospital. “The first question the doctor asked me was whether I lived in Limoilou,” she recalls. “When I told her I grew up there, she was convinced there was a connection.”

Joanne Boutet, 65, at home in Limoilou. She treats her eczema, which developed when she returned to the area, with cortisone cream.

Limoilou sits next to the international port of Quebec where mined nickel is transported and there are growing concerns among health experts that particles in the air could affect the health of nearby residents.

The provincial government statistics show that atmospheric nickel levels in Limoilou are above average. Between 2018 and 2021, the district exceeded the provincial nickel standard 50 times and reached more than 14 times the maximum limit at least three times last year.

And a government-funded study found that residents of the working-class neighborhood are 1.3 times more likely to have asthma than those at the top of the hill in the Upper Town area of ​​Quebec. They are also 1.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for a respiratory illness.

However, concern over the possible effect of nickel production on people’s health is collided with the industry’s refusal to contribute to poor air quality and the provincial government’s desire to be a leader in providing mineral resources for a green economy. Nickel is a key component in batteries, including for electric cars, and federal and provincial governments are supporting companies to boost mineral production.

Véronique Lalande, former resident of Limoilou and spokesperson for the citizens’ initiative Vigilance du Port de Québec, collected samples of the red dust that covered Limoilou.

Residents suspected there might be trouble, but awareness of contaminated air gained momentum in 2012, when a cloud of red dust from the international port blanketed Limoilou. The dust turned out to be from a pile of uncovered ironblood powder that blew in from the port.

A class action lawsuit was eventually launched and went to court where a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that residents who found their homes covered in red dust would be compensated for cleaning and mess.

Véronique Lalande, who brought the class action, also suffered from eczema as well as increased allergy symptoms since moving to the neighborhood a few years prior. In 2012, she noticed dust on her balcony and on her newborn baby’s hands one day. “I realized his face was red and he put some in his mouth and I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”

Through dust samples and researching air quality reports, she learned that Limoilou has, on average, the highest atmospheric nickel levels in Canada.

“That’s what really shook people up,” said Ms. Lalande, who also runs a citizen activist group focused on air quality in Limoilou.

Nickel, a metal naturally present in rock deposits, is not considered dangerous, except for people with allergies – the World Health Organization estimates that about 2% of men and 11% of women have a skin reaction to nickel. Ms. Lalande is one of them.

If ingested through the air, nickel can be carcinogenic. “These smaller parts will go deep into the respiratory system, they can go into your blood,” Ms. Lalande said. She was nicknamed the Erin Brockovich of Limoilou. “There is absolutely nothing normal about it.”

Government statistics show that atmospheric nickel levels in Limoilou are above average. Health experts are increasingly concerned that particles in the air could affect residents’ health.

Nickel is used in thousands of everyday products, from Canadian five-cent coins to jewelry, but it has experienced a peak of interest due to its use in electric car batteries. In its 2022 budget, the federal government announced that it was prepared to spend nearly $4 billion to fund the minerals industry essential to electric cars, including nickel.

In Quebec, the largest nickel mine belongs to Glencore, a Swiss multinational. It has been operating out of Raglan since 1997, near the northern tip of the province, and produces 240,000 tonnes of raw material annually, according to the company. Glencore also calls Raglan “one of the purest series of nickel deposits in the world”.

From Raglan, Glencore transports the nickel on its ship to the Port of Quebec where it is unloaded into a sealed storage dome before being transferred to railcars bound for a smelter in Sudbury. At the foundry, it is partly refined and then brought back to the port by rail. From there it is put on another ship bound for a refinery in Norway to be sold as pure nickel.

Maurice Moreau, Glencore Canada’s environmental management systems manager for Ontario and Quebec, at the Glencore facility at the Port of Quebec in Limoilou. He blames the poor air quality elsewhere: wood stoves, the municipal incinerator and pollution from cars, among other sources.

During a port visit, Glencore’s environmental systems manager for Quebec and Ontario said the company was not responsible for the release of nickel into the air at Limoilou. “Nickel is of great value to us. This is where we make our profit. We don’t want to lose any nickel in the air,” said Moe Moreau.

Mr. Moreau said that Glencore, which recorded a record $18.9 billion in profits in the first half of 2022, has spent $60 million over the past decade to improve its atmospheric nickel capture mechanisms. Some of these improvements include updating its unloading machine to operate on one lane to reduce unloading by 36 hours when the ship is open and the nickel is exposed to the air. Glencore has also added sealed doors instead of shutters to the building, where railcars are filled, and installed dry fog machines to spray nickel onto the ship, turning stray dust into water molecules that fall back onto the pile.

Glencore, which was simultaneously involved in air quality controversy on its Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., which emitted high levels of arsenic for decades, leading to high rates of lung cancer, will not release air quality statistics recorded at the port. Mr. Moreau says that “nickel does not come from the mining industry. He blames Limoilou’s wood stoves, the salt that accumulates after snow removal, the municipal incinerator, the paper mill and automobile pollution.

A study found that residents of Limoilou are 1.3 times more likely to suffer from asthma and 1.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for a respiratory illness, compared to those in the hills of Upper Town Quebec. .

In 2013, a Quebecer Study by the Ministry of the Environment concluded that it is “very unlikely” that the nickel in the Limoilou air comes from anywhere other than the port. He also discovered that nickel contained an iron sulfide called pentlandite – a potentially more dangerous form of the metal. In Western Australia, where pentlandite is found, standards are much stricter than they are in Canada.

“Here, we’re talking about apples and bananas,” said Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, who heads the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (AQME). “Nickel found in Europe and Ontario is relatively benign, I mean it can cause respiratory problems but it’s not as carcinogenic as the others. The one we have in Quebec is the one most likely to cause cancer if there is high long-term exposure.

A petition signed by 18 Quebec health ministries including AQME called on the government to investigate the effects of atmospheric nickel and reverse its February Decision to relax the provincial nickel standard – a move Glencore lobbied for since 2013.

“We have an industry that does not pay the price for what it pollutes. They literally ask for more, and the government says yes, and then who suffers? It is the people of the city who are the least heard, ”said Pétrin-Desrosiers.

In an email, the Quebec Ministry of the Environment defended its decision, citing a 2018 report led by Michèle Bouchard, holder of the chair of toxicological risk analysis and management at the University of Montreal.

“The application of an annual standard[…]prevents associated critical respiratory effects with repeated exposure to nickel and protects against the carcinogenic effects of all nickel compounds, including nickel sulphides.

Speaking to journalists In February, Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said the decision to relax nickel air quality standards was made in response to increased demand for electric car batteries. “I have a very clear mandate to fight climate change, to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We need to electrify our transport, and for that we need nickel.”

More than 100 residents created a mural to illustrate the community’s frustration with the poor air quality in Limoilou.

In Limoilou, there is a mural of a person wearing a gas mask standing with an umbrella below imagery of a skull and bones, bombs and lightning. The artwork was made with the participation of over 100 local residents to demonstrate the community’s frustration.

“We no longer want Limoilou to be a sacrificial zone,” said Raymond Poirier, president of the Volunteer Citizen Council of Vieux-Limoilou. “In French we say, ‘often not in my backyard‘ (not in my garden), but I feel like it’s still in our garden.

Raymond Poirier, president of the Citizen Council of Vieux-Limoilou.

Ms. Lalande left the neighborhood in 2016 for a house in the mountains where she lives on the corner of a street called Bon Air. Back in Limoilou, where she still works, Ms. Lalande indicates the park she used to take her children. “It’s really still very emotional because I didn’t choose to leave,” she said.

While Limoilou awaits several government studies on air quality, including a report from an independent task force expected to arrive by the end of the year, she says the goal is not to hunt Glencore or the region’s port. “We can collectively be richer from our resources, but they can do it the right way by protecting the people,” she said.

If that happens, she hopes to return to her beloved Limoilou.

“I believe it’s a matter of time,” she said.

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