The Quebec government of the CAQ defends the massive and deadly pollution of the mining giant Glencore in Rouyn-Noranda

The release of previously suppressed government statistics showing that the citizens of Rouyn-Noranda have been poisoned for years by mining giant Glencore has sparked a wave of popular outcry across the province of Quebec.

The Horne Foundry in Rouyn-Noranda [Photo by Clarius29 / CC BY-SA 4.0]

The Horne Foundry in Rouyn-Noranda, a small industrial town in northern Quebec, produces copper anodes from recycled electronics heated to very high temperatures. After operating for decades under different owners, it was acquired in 2013 by Glencore, one of the world’s largest and most profitable resource companies. Present in 35 countries, it manages approximately 150 facilities in the fields of mining, metallurgy and oil production.

It has long been known, but ignored by successive provincial and federal governments, that the processes used at this plant emit tons of heavy metals into the air at levels far exceeding established environmental standards, making it one of of the most polluting factories in Canada. The first serious study on the toxic materials it emits was carried out in 1975 and the community of Rouyn-Noranda mobilized on several occasions to demand that these uncontrolled emissions be stopped.

The information revealed in recent weeks provides new evidence of the harmful and even fatal consequences of the massive pollution generated by the Horne Smelter. He also highlighted the role of the right-wing CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) government in working closely with the company, like its predecessors, to secure its profits at the expense of the health and lives of residents. of Rouyn. -Noranda.

Radio-Canada revealed in June that in 2019, Quebec’s national director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, intervened after a meeting with Glencore executives to block the publication of data comparing health indicators. health in Rouyn-Noranda with the rest of the Province.

The substantial deviations recorded suggested that emissions of arsenic and other heavy metals at the Horne smelter were responsible for the serious health problems plaguing the town’s population. The chilling stats – only made available in May 2022 after being suppressed for more than two and a half years – include the following:

  • A much higher number of low birth weight births;
  • A life expectancy significantly lower than the Quebec average, up to five years less in the neighborhoods close to the aluminum smelter;
  • Fifty percent more cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • A lung cancer rate of 140.3 cases per 100,000 population between 2013 and 2017, compared to 107.7 for the province as a whole, while smoking rates remained about the same.
Incidence of lung cancer in Rouyn-Noranda (top row) and in all of Quebec (bottom row). The Y axis shows the adjusted cancer rates per 100,000. This data from the Quebec Ministry of Health was suppressed by Arruda in 2019 and made public only in May 2022.

This damning information was contained in an appendix – removed under Arruda’s orders – of a biomonitoring study conducted by the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Public Health Department (DSPu) and published in 2019.

The study reported high levels of arsenic, including levels 3.7 times higher in the fingernails of children in the Notre Dame neighborhood near the smelter than in another town in the area. The DSPu wrote at the time that “the population of this district is (…) exposed simultaneously to multiple metals which can act together and increase their toxicity in the body”.

Arruda, the official most directly responsible for suppressing reports of higher lung cancer rates in Rouyn-Noranda, would months later become the CAQ government’s right-hand man in its disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic. coronavirus.

As in Rouyn-Noranda, the CAQ government is putting profits before human lives everywhere in Quebec. He demanded that factories and most workplaces remain open, along with schools, so that profits could continue to be extracted from the labor of the working class. He abandoned all efforts to fight the pandemic in the name of the homicidal and anti-science policy of “living with the virus”. The result is that the province now has nearly 16,000 deaths, millions of people who have been infected with COVID-19 at least once and the health system on the brink of collapse.

The results of the 2019 biomonitoring study are not surprising. The CAQ and its predecessors in government, the Parti Québécois and the Liberal Party of Quebec, have known for decades about the abnormally high levels of arsenic and lung cancer in Rouyn-Noranda, not to mention the massive emissions of other heavy metals and related health problems. problems between the inhabitants of the city.

Ruthlessly defending Glencore’s gigantic profit margins, the Quebec government allowed the Horne Smelter to emit 200 ng/m³ of arsenic (reduced to 100 ng/m³ in 2021) when the standard for all of Quebec is 3 ng/m³ since 2011. Recent research has demonstrated the neurotoxic effects of arsenic at concentrations as low as 15 ng/m³, particularly in children. As for the federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, it washed its hands of the whole affair, since the industry is under provincial jurisdiction.

The CAQ also allowed the Horne Foundry to develop its own “action plan”, that is, to “self-regulate”. Unsurprisingly, this “action plan” was adopted virtually unchanged by government officials, including Arruda. The plan, tailor-made to protect Glencore’s profit interests, rejected leading demands from Rouyn-Noranda doctors, public health experts and citizens to bring arsenic emissions down to the provincial standard and add new sampling stations to better measure the levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in the region.

The years following the implementation of Glencore’s “action plan” saw a significant increase in arsenic emissions. Emission rates fell from 69 ng/m³ in 2020 to an average of 100 ng/m³ in 2021. A peak of 1170 ng/m³ of arsenic in the air was even recorded on January 22, 2021. According to the According to the National Pollutant Release Inventory, the smelter released 36 tons of arsenic into the air in 2021. You have to go back to 2004 to find a year when the smelter released more pollutants, at 52 tons. Arsenic, once released, contaminates the soil.

The damning statistics finally released in May 2022 and the revelation that Arruda intervened in 2019 to suppress them have heightened popular anger across the province.

Fifty local doctors have signed an open letter asking health authorities to act immediately to bring the smelter’s emissions of arsenic and other heavy metals down to provincial standards.

The opposition of the medical profession found an echo in the prestigious BMJ(formerly the British medical journal), in an article documenting the impact of highly toxic emissions on the health of the people of Rouyn-Noranda while demonstrating that the CAQ was fully aware of it. He also exposed the many pretexts put forward by Arruda to justify his suppression of vital information.

The government has responded to the public outcry by launching a new public relations operation, showing once again that it is prepared to lie brazenly to defend the profits of big business.

Visiting Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault blamed previous governments and claimed that progress had been made under the CAQ, which is clearly contradicted by recent figures on arsenic emissions.

The President and CEO of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Regional Health Center, Caroline Roy, said that it was “only recently that we noticed health inequalities” in Rouyn-Noranda. Indeed, it was revealed as early as 1998 that life expectancy in the Notre-Dame neighborhood near the foundry was nearly 10 years lower than the provincial average.

Dr Luc Boileau, Arruda’s successor as Quebec’s national public health director, insisted it would be “a serious mistake” to link the serious health problems seen in the city – abnormal incidence lung cancer, significantly lower life expectancy, proportion of low birth weight babies, with massive emissions of arsenic and other heavy metals from the smelter.

The contamination of Rouyn-Noranda by Glencore is one of many examples of the subordination of social needs to capitalist profit, with devastating consequences for the environment and the lives of millions of people. To cite just three of the most notorious examples:

  • In Ontario, the Anishinabe community of Grassy Narrows was contaminated with mercury by Dryden Chemical, a pulp and paper company that dumped tons of this toxic chemical into the English-Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970. About 90% of members in the community show physical symptoms. mercury poisoning.
  • In Japan, at least 75,000 people developed symptoms of methylmercury poisoning after chemical maker Chisso dumped thousands of gallons of untreated water into Minamata Bay between 1951 and 1968.
  • In Flint, Michigan, a switch to poorly treated water from the polluted Flint River in 2014 led to lead leaching into the city’s tap water, poisoning the town of 80,000. None of the politicians responsible for the disaster have been prosecuted.

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