All posts by Carol Linnitt

About Carol Linnitt

Carol Linnitt is Site Manager and Director of Research for DeSmog Canada. She joined DeSmog in June 2010 as a researcher, focusing much of her time on the natural gas industry and hydraulic fracturing. Her research focuses mostly on industry public relations, misinformation campaigns and energy development. Her work also led to the DeSmog micro-documentary CRY WOLF: An Unethical Oil Story and the Cry Wolf investigative series. Carol has a Master's in English Literature from York University where she studied political theory, natural resource conflicts, and Aboriginal rights. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria in the English and Cultural, Social and Political Thought programs.

“Captured” environmental regulator thinks of Kitimat smelter owner Rio Tinto as “client”

Rio Tinto Alcan's Kitimat smelter (Rio Tinto Alcan/Canada Newswire)
Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter (Rio Tinto Alcan/Canada Newswire)

Rweprinted with permission from DeSmog Canada.

Move over Duffy diaries. There’s a new black book in town.

That’s the detailed work journal of B.C. Ministry of Environment senior official Frazer McKenzie, which recounts conversations between ministry officials and Rio Tinto Alcan while the company was applying for a permit to increase aluminum production at its Kitimat smelter.

Frazer McKenzie was a diligent and thorough employee. He documented ongoings with Rio Tinto Alcan within government that we’d otherwise never know about,” lawyer Chris Tollefson told DeSmog Canada.

The hen guarding the fox house

During the application process, Rio Tinto Alcan financed McKenzie’s position at the Ministry of Environment through a secondment agreement and government officials repeatedly refer to the company as a “client.”

DeSmog Canada has learned this parlance has become commonplace between ministry officials and industry. Indeed, much of what occurred in the Rio Tinto Alcan case appears to be standard operating procedure.

McKenzie’s journal — made public due to an appeal — offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.

The ministry has argued that it agreed to allow the company to fund McKenzie’s position because of concerns there would be “inadequate staffing to deal with the application” otherwise. Such arrangements with industry are not entirely unusual due to chronic underfunding.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s application, which was approved by B.C. in 2013, granted the company the right to increase sulphur dioxide emissions in the Kitimat airshed by 56 per cent.

Sulphur dioxide is released from the combustion of sulphur-laden fossil fuels — such as the petroleum coke used to smelt aluminum — and irritates eyes, noses, throats and lungs. People with asthma, children and the elderly are at increased risk from sulphur dioxide exposure.

Two Kitimat elementary school teachers — Emily Toews, who suffers from asthma, and Lis Stannus — are now challenging that permit approval through the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, arguing the project threatens human and environmental health. The appeal, being heard by a tribunal in Kitimat, is in its third week.

This case really does represent a situation where you have a regulator that has gotten too close to a powerful and well-resourced private interest that it is supposed to be independently regulating,” Tollefson told the tribunal.

black diaryCentral to the tribunal are the extensive notes McKenzie took while the Ministry of Environment, including manager of environmental protection Ian Sharpe, and Rio Tinto Alcan discussed the company’s permit application.

On Monday, Sharpe told the appeals panel Rio Tinto Alcan was “after comfort in the authorization process” and that he discussed the possibility of creating “some kind of comfort letter or document…that would give Rio Tinto Alcan’s board the comfort they needed to get on with funding.”

This is B.C.’s version of the Duffy senate scandal: it shows how deeply comfortable government and industry are with one other,” said Richard Overstall, counsel for Emily Toews.

BC left sulphur dioxide limits unanswered

McKenzie’s notes show the provincial government was aware of scrubbing technology — used to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions from smelters around the world — but chose not to require Rio Tinto Alcan to put that technology in place.

Under cross-examination, McKenzie read aloud his notes, which referenced Rio Tinto Alcan’s request to eliminate the mention of scrubbers from an internal memo. He also noted a phone call from a deputy minister who “did not want to let a little SO2 get in the way” of Rio Tinto Alcan’s project.

McKenzie’s journals also show the company was anxious about the projected increase of sulphur dioxide emissions from the modernization project and wanted regulatory certainty to calm investors.

Construction on Kitimat smelter modernization (Bechtel)
Construction on Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter modernization (Bechtel)

Rio Tinto Alcan requested specific sulphur dioxide discharge limits during the creation of a joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the province. Under the MOU, the province committed to regulate Rio Tinto Alcan under sulphur dioxide standards from the 1970s — and guaranteed those weak rules would stay in effect for the project until at least the end of 2018, even though the province introduced much stronger interim standards in 2014.

Those weak standards were eventually dropped altogether by Sharpe, who said he began to consider them “obsolete,” but told the panel he could not recall when. No new standards for Rio Tinto Alcan’s smelter have been put into place and, according to Sharpe, won’t be in place until B.C. or the federal government mandate them after conducting a full public consultation.

McKenzie’s notes make numerous mentions to Rio Tinto Alcan’s desire for “certainty” regarding potential SO2 standards.

SO2 is troubling to Alcan,” McKenzie wrote in one entry entered into evidence. “Insisting they have limit ahead of time — something in writing.”

McKenzie noted in one internal correspondence:

[quote]Alcan is anxious to get green light…to provide good news on project to stakeholders.[/quote]

The province approved the company’s permit in 2013 but did not release an environmental monitoring plan until 18 months later. Although the modernization project is very close to complete, it remains without sulphur dioxide emission limits.

Appellants point to regulatory capture

Between the period of 2007 and 2013, McKenzie was seconded to Rio Tinto Alcan, which funded his position. He worked closely with the company during the permit application process.

Tollefson argues Sharpe’s close ties with Rio Tinto Alcan influenced and ultimately fettered his decision-making.

The evidence shows that government of B.C. and Rio Tinto Alcan “deliberated carefully over the language” contained in their agreement “knowing that it might be challenged in court on the ground that it fettered the discretion of the decision-maker charged with granting the permit,” he told the panel.

[quote]We need to reinvigorate the idea of a regulator as a fearless public defender[/quote]

That was not the case with Ministry of Environment officials, who, according to Tollefson, throughout years of documents refer to Rio Tinto Alcan as a “client” and tend to view the world through “industry-coloured glasses.”

Overstall said there was a “slow creep” of industry’s interests into government activities.

That’s what we see with the Duffy scandal: these guys get so involved they lose their compass,” he said.

No one wakes up one morning and decides, ‘I’m going to get cozy with industry.’ It’s more of a slow creep,” Overstall said. “They make small decisions one after another behind closed doors thinking what they’re doing is okay until suddenly the public spotlight is shone on them.”


Rio Tinto skips air scrubbers to cut costs at Kitimat smelter

Rio Tinto's Kitimat smelter (Damien Gillis)
Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter (Damien Gillis)

The following story is republished with permission from Desmog Canada

When the B.C. Ministry of Environment approved Rio Tinto Alcan’s application to modernize its aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C., local resident Emily Toews assumed that would mean an improvement in the plant’s emissions.

But the modernization project, which will increase the plant’s production, will raise sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 56 per cent from 27 to 42 tonnes per day.

Toews, who suffers from asthma, told a tribunal in Kitimat Monday she decided to remain in Kitimat in 2010, rather than move to West Kelowna with her husband, because she had “previous knowledge that the modernization project would reduce emissions.”

The tribunal, hosted by the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, is entering its third week in Kitimat after two weeks in Victoria. The board began investigating the government’s approval of the Rio Tinto Alcan modernization project after Toews and fellow Kitimat resident Lis Stannus asked it to overturn the decision, saying increased sulphur dioxide emissions endangered their community’s health.

The project, granted approval from the B.C. government in 2013, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the smelter, but not sulphur dioxide emissions because Rio Tinto Alcan was not required to introduce scrubbers, commonly used in smelters to remove the pollutant from airborne emissions.

Toews, who has a 10-month old child and is a kindergarten teacher, said she’s worried about the impact the increased pollution will have on the community’s children.

Sulphur dioxide, a pungent pollutant that results primarily from fossil fuel combustion, irritates the skin as well as the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Exposure to sulphur dioxide aggravates the respiratory systems of asthmatics and is known to negatively affect the respiratory systems of children and the elderly.

She told the tribunal that several children in the Kitimat school where she teaches suffer from asthma.

Working at an elementary school there are a lot of illnesses going around,” she said. “During allergy season I often have to help kids, or help administer their medication before they go outdoors.”

”I’m concerned for other people in the community,“ she said.

Emily Toews in Kitimat (Carol Linnit)
Emily Toews in Kitimat (Carol Linnitt)

Toews questioned why, if solutions like scrubbers are a possibility, the province didn’t require them when approving the smelter modernization project.

Scrubbers, which can either create dry sulphur waste or can use seawater which converts SO2 to sulfates for a benign release into the ocean, are commonly used in European smelters.

Toews told the panel she cannot see why the province wouldn’t require Rio Tinto Alcan to employ scrubbers to eliminate the SO2 emissions problem in Kitimat.

No I’m not opposed to the modernization project, however I am opposed to increasing one emission — sulphur dioxide — and I don’t understand why that emission was left out of this ‘state of the art’ modernization process,” Toews said.

[quote]I’d like this panel to consider having Rio Tinto produce the best state of the art reduction in emissions possible with the technologies that are available and to my knowledge there are technologies that are available to do that.[/quote]

An expert witness who previously gave testimony during the hearings told the panel Rio Tinto Alcan was avoiding paying for the installment of scrubbers and thereby externalizing the costs of SO2 emissions onto the health of local households.

Chris Tollefson, a lawyer representing Toews’ co-apellant Lis Stannus, said the company is primed to install scrubbers in a “plug and play” manner.

There’s no dispute on the evidence that these scrubbers can be installed with relative ease,” he told the panel.

[quote]In fact, the [Kitimat modernization project] has been designed and built with an onsite area specifically set aside for scrubbers to be retrofitted…on what the experts describe is a ‘plug and play’ basis.[/quote]

Tollefson said the company’s issue with scrubbers is cost — an estimated $100 to $200 million for installation, not including operating costs. The company estimated the modernization project would cost $3.3 billion but overruns have the project nearing $5 billion last summer.

Rio Tinto Alcan has “made this very clear to the provincial government…that they simply do not want to spend the money.” Government officials from the B.C. Ministry of Environment were also too concerned with Rio Tinto’s interests, Tollefson previously argued, alleging the project’s approval without scrubbers at the provincial level is the result of regulatory capture.

Tollefson said he is asking the panel to “weigh the financial benefit to Rio Tinto Alcan of not being held to a rigorous environmental standard against the cost to the environment and human health of allowing Rio Tinto Alcan to increase itsSO2 emissions by 56 per cent.”

The hearings, conducted by the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, are currently underway in Kitimat.

Toxic fracking waste illegally dumped in BC water treatment system

Toxic fracking waste illegally dumped in BC water treatment system

Toxic fracking fluids illegally dumped in BC water treatment system
A storage pond in northeast BC containing fracking fluids (Image: Two Island Films)

Republished with permission from

Although city officials from Dawson Creek won’t disclose the names of the companies involved, they are confirming that fracking waste has been illegally dumped into the city’s water treatment system on at least two occasions.

Jim Chute, administrative officer for the city, told DeSmog Canada, that illegal dumping has occurred at least three times, but twice the waste was “clearly” related to fracking.

It has actually been on three occasions in the last 18 months where we’ve caught inappropriate materials being dumped,” he said. “One of those was a load of contaminated diesel. It’s not clear to us exactly how that diesel got contaminated so we don’t know if that was frack-related or not.”

The other two were a mix of compounds that were clearly flowback waste from a frack operation.”

Chute said the chemicals used in the fracking process can damage the city’s water and sewage treatment facilities which are unable to handle industrial waste. Chute told the Alaska Highway News the waste could cause irreversible damage to living organisms that play a crucial role in the city’s water reclamation system.

Fracking in northeastern B.C.

Fracking, otherwise known as high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial extraction process used to free oil and gas from tight rock formations using extremely high pressures and large amounts of toxic chemicals.

The incidents in Dawson Creek involved subcontractors of the gas companies, Chute told DeSmog Canada, saying “virtually all jobs are outsourced to subtrades.”

[quote]If you’re Encana Corporation, you probably don’t drill that well yourself, it’s probably contracted out to a subcontractor like Precision Drilling. And then Precision Drilling themselves don’t build the lease roads, they contract that out to a subcontractor…and they don’t do their own waste disposal, they contract that out.[/quote]

It’s so busy up here,” Chute said.

The situations we’ve encountered in every case has been an independent contractor to a company who signs on to a company [saying] they will dispose of the waste in an appropriate manner…and then behave badly, try to save themselves some money by coming to our dump instead of going to the proper spot.”

Chute told the Alaska Highway News the contractors were fined and responsible for cleaning the contaminated holding tanks.

Toxic wastewater a problem for industry

The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, the provincial oil and gas regulator, is responsible for monitoring the activity of fracking companies, including the disposal of wastewater. B.C. has several private wastewater facilities where recyclable water is separated from toxic waste, which is then disposed of in underground injection wells.

In an emailed statement, B.C. Oil and Gas Commission communications coordinator Hardy Friedrich said, “B.C. has strict regulations related to the disposal of oil and gas waste in the Oil and Gas Waste Regulation and the Hazardous Waste Regulation.”

He added: “Fluids used in hydraulic fracturing must be disposed in a deep underground formation via a service well. Most other waste must be disposed at an approved disposal facility. There are currently 106 operating deep well disposal sites in northeast B.C.”

The difficulty of disposing of wastewater from fracking operations is a problem that has plagued the industry across North America. Flowback fluid from a fracking well includes toxic chemicals and oftentimes radioactive elements from extremely deep wells.

Most municipal wastewater systems are not equipped with the technology to handle such toxic waste in such high volumes.

Dawson Creek, located in the shale gas-rich Montney Basin, has seen a major increase in gas companies in recent years. The Montney Basin, along with the Horn River Basin also in northeastern B.C., could potentially account for 22 per cent of all North American shale gas production by 2020 according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.


In the early years of B.C.’s shale gas boom, Grant Shomody, president of Grantech Engineering Internationalwarned of the potential problems producers would face when it comes to wastewater disposal in the Montney:

If this play develops as producers hope, the number of wells being drilled would severely tax local water resources. In that case, we can expect a lot of ecologically related criticism. There’s also the problem of disposing of the frac water or treating it for reuse. It’s expensive, and Montney producers have not installed water treatment capabilities at their plants.”

A challenge and liability for Dawson Creek

Chute expressed concern with illegal dumping of fracking wastewater, especially in light of new Environment Canada rules, which could hold city officials accountable for negligence.

Previously there had been less onerous regulations, around how anyone who is a sewage treatment operator or handler of sewage…in order to prevent unauthorized discharge into watercourses,” Chute explained.

These new federal regulations are more strenuous and more robust than any that had been in place in the past, Chute said.

The onus was put on us to ensure we had the safeguards in place that nothing escaped into the environment. Part and parcel because of that, and [how] thinking changed around Enron and evidence of bad corporate behaviour, part of the regulations imposed personal liability on the people responsible.”

In Dawson Creek, that would be me,” he said.

Dawson Creek is moving to a new system, said Chute, where a failsafe dump station will monitor regularly for harmful compounds. If those compounds are found, the waste will be prevented from entering the regular treatment system.

Chute says the new facility, which will cost nearly $4 million to build, will be continuously monitored during open hours, 12 hours a day, six days a week.

All of this is to make sure unauthorized industrial waste doesn’t go into our system.”

We are going to make sure that we catch anybody that tries to circumvent the system by coming to us because we’re a shorter haul than they’d have to go to the proper spot.”

Legal errors in could send Enbridge review back to drawing board

Legal errors could send Enbridge review back to drawing board

Legal errors in could send Enbridge review back to drawing board
The 3-member Joint Review Panel for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline

Not even a month has pass since the federally-appointed Joint Review Panel (JRP) released its official report recommending approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, pending the fulfillment of 209 conditions. Yet already two separate suits have been filed against the integrity of the report, with groups requesting Cabinet delay a final decision on the pipeline project until the federal court of appeals can assess the complaints.

One of the suits, filed Friday by the Environmental Law Centre on behalf of B.C. Nature (the Federation of British Columbia Naturalists), requested the JRP’s report be declared invalid and that Cabinet halt its decision on the pipeline project until the court challenge is heard. The second suit, filed by Ecojustice on behalf of several environmental groups claims the JRP report is based on insufficient evidence and therefore fails to constitute a full environmental assessment under the law.

Chris Tollefson, B.C. Nature’s lawyer and executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, says “we have asked that the federal court make an order that no further steps be taken by any federal regulator or by Cabinet until this request is adjudicated.”

[quote]We’re confident that the federal court will make that order because we’ve raised some serious issues with the legality of the report and if the report is flawed then it can’t go to Cabinet, and it shouldn’t go to Cabinet.[/quote]

Legal errors in Enbridge review prompt challenge

B.C. Nature has identified almost a dozen legal errors that bring the legitimacy of the JRP’s recommendation into question.

“The two [errors] that we think are the most serious among those are the finding with respect to justification of serious harm to caribou and grizzly and the ruling with respect to a potential major oil spill and its consequences. We say that in both of those areas there is a glaring error that’s occurred that has to be addressed by the federal court of appeal,” Tollefson said.

A federal recovery strategy for humpack whales on the B.C. coast released in October cited potential increased oil tanker traffic as a danger to dwindling populations. The recovery strategy, released after a five-year delay, also noted the danger toxic spills posed to critical habitat.

A federal caribou recovery strategy is expected by the end of the month.

“Both those federal strategies have to be consider by the Cabinet when it ultimately rules on this [project]… For caribou this pipeline has some serious consequences and it will be interesting to see what happens when the federal strategy comes down.”

JRP hearing a “failure”

For Tollefson, the inadequacy of the official JRP report points to a failure of the Northern Gateway hearing process.

“It’s disappointing for everybody involved on the intervenor side, how this has unfolded,” he said.

[quote]The report is not only legally flawed in relation to the specific issues that we’ve raised but I think there’s a more general flaw, which is that it’s failed the test of transparency, it fails test of intelligibility. It basically doesn’t grapple with the evidence.[/quote]

The report reaches its conclusions “without setting out its analysis,” Tollefson says, “without discussing the evidence that forms the basis for those conclusions.”

“So we think there’s a basic rule of law issue here: does this report even conform with the basic requirements in terms of intelligibility and transparency that we expect from tribunals?”

“And we say that it doesn’t.”

Tollefson anticipates that the request will delay Cabinet’s 180 decision period, saying it would be “very difficult” for Cabinet to address and respond to B.C. Nature’s complaints within that timeframe.

For Tollefson a delay in Cabinet’s decision isn’t only foreseeable, it’s appropriate.

“Cabinet after all has to make its decision based upon the findings and the recommendations that arise out of this report.” Without a reliable report, what kind of decision can British Columbians expect?

The errors in the report could send the JRP back to the drawing board.

“If we’re upheld on any of our arguments, that report will have to be sent back to the JRP, redone, and we’ll basically be starting, potentially, back where we were in June. In those circumstances, it makes little sense for Cabinet to make a decision given that level of uncertainty around the future of the report.”

 This article originally appeared on DeSmog Canada.

Four months after Lac-Megantic rail disaster river highly contaminated

Four months after Lac-Mégantic disaster, river highly contaminated

Four months after Lac-Megantic rail disaster river highly contaminated
Quebec’s Chaudière River (photo courtesy of Greenpeace Quebec)

Sediment from the Chaudière River, near the site of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment four months ago, shows high levels of contaminants according to testing done by Greenpeace Quebec and the Société pour vaincre la pollution (SVP). Despite months of cleanup operations sediments collected from the river show higher-than-acceptable levels of several chemicals, including cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet said the department continues to monitor the safety of the water, reports the Montreal Gazette, and will take into consideration the two groups’ test results.

In late September Quebec’s environment department lifted a drinking-water ban for several downstream communities who rely on the Chaudière River for water.

lac megantic water sample greenpeace
Lac-Mégantic water sample (photo: Greenpeace Quebec)

“Sampling has not stopped, analyses have not stopped, the teams are still on the ground,” Blanchet said in the National Assembly Wednesday. He added “information is still publicly available on the Environment Ministry’s website, such that we know that there is no immediate threat.”

27 times acceptable pollution levels

Both Greenpeace Quebec and SVP say pollutant levels in samples taken 4.7km downstream of the lake are 27 times higher than accepted levels.

The Lac-Mégantic derailment resulted in the release of an estimated 5.9 million litres of oil that burned or spilled into the town’s lake and the Chaudière river.

Recently Quebec environment updated those oil spill figures from a previously estimated 5.6 million litres.

The precise amount of oil released into the lake and river is still under question. The environment department estimates around 100,000 litres of oil contaminated the river although Greenpeace’s Patrick Bonin questioned that amount given the high level of contamination present in their samples. Researchers could both see and smell oil in river at the time of testing.

According to Bonin this is the second round of testing the groups have undertaken. Results in both instances were sent to the environment department.

Government pressured to release its own test results

The groups are calling on Quebec to release the details of its water sampling to the public, including what methods are in use and all results.

In October the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report claiming lax federal regulation over the transport of petroleum products by rail led to the deadly Lac-Mégantic accident that killed 47 people.

“In my view, the evidence points to a fundamentally flawed regulatory system, cost-cutting corporate behaviour that jeopardized public safety and the environment, and responsibility extending to the highest levels of corporate management and government policy making,” wrote author Bruce Campbell, the centre’s executive director.

Shipments of oil by rail have increased by 28,000 percent since 2009.