Rouyn-Noranda, Que., residents torn between hometown loyalty and fear of toxic gas emissions RS News

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Félix B. Desfossés remembers growing up playing in the red and orange mud behind a park in the Sacré-Coeur neighborhood of Rouyn-Noranda, Que.

“Actually, we grew up playing in those things in a strong state,” he said.

The material was mining waste from the neighboring Horne Smelter.

The smelter is a landmark in Rouyn-Noranda and its two chimneys overlook the town. For some residents, this represents a threat that they want to escape from afar. For some, it is a challenge they will not back down from as they fight for clean air for their families.

Explorer Edmund Henry Horne discovered copper and gold in the area in the early 1900s. That led to mining and the development of the town of Noranda, which was later merged with neighboring Rouyn.

The smelter was built in 1926, long before environmental regulations were invented. It is now owned by Glencore Canada, whose Swiss parent company produces and markets a range of metals and minerals worldwide.

Desfossés, 39, loves his hometown and its history so much that he named his son after the mine’s founder.

“I decided to name my son Edmund because of Edmund Horne. Now, even his name reminds me of this whole situation and the decisions we make in our lives that would be different if we had the information we have now,” he said. Desfossés.

A landscape with flowers in the foreground, a lake in the middle and industrial plants in the background.
The two towers of the Horne Smelter can be seen from anywhere in the town of Rouyn-Noranda on Osisko Lake. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

A learn issued in June by Quebec’s Institute of Public Health (INSPQ) confirmed that high rates of cancer and lung diseases are directly linked to high arsenic and cadmium emissions in Rouyn-Noranda due to the Horne Smelter.

This study also revealed many health problems associated with these emissions, such as low birth weight babies, reduced life expectancy, heart disease and diabetes.

It wasn’t the first red flag. In 1993, Environment Canada and Health Canada issued a warning at the Horne Smelter and announced the need to conduct lung cancer studies at the Notre-Dame site in Rouyn-Noranda.

The Horne Smelter is increasing its arsenic emissions.

Carbon emission history and historical emissions

Quebec’s provincial standard for arsenic emissions is an annual average of three nanograms per cubic meter, but the Horne Smelter is not included.

In 2000, an INSPQ study showed that emissions were an annual average of 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter.

Horne is allowed to exceed the standards because the Quebec government granted it a historic exemption and allows it to take a gradual approach to reducing its emissions while updating its technology to meet stricter standards.

In 2007, emissions from the Horne Smelter were limited to an average of 200 nanograms per cubic meter. In 2021, the limit drops to 100 nanograms per cubic meter – still 33 times higher than the provincial level.

Those figures are always annual averages, as Quebec does not regulate daily emissions of arsenic.

The sign says the end of the track.  Behind it is a small house.
At least part of the soil of the Notre-Dame region will have to be restored and decontaminated, according to the estimate of the Department of Public Health of the Region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

Desfossés says he didn’t know what he was breathing. He, like many residents, had no idea how bad the pollution was in Rouyn-Noranda.

She regrets going back there to raise her son, after living in Montreal for 12 years.

“I should have known … that there was poison there but now it’s too late,” said Desfossés. Her son is now 10 years old and has lived in Rouyn-Noranda since he was six months old.

Now, Desfossés says he wants to leave the city he loves, for the sake of his son’s future. He has started packing.

“I don’t want to [my son] spending another five years of his childhood and growing up breathing this. If he has cancer at the age of 20, how am I going to deal with that?” said Desfossés.

Should I stay or should I go?

Many parents face the same problem. Jennifer Ricard-Turcotte was born and raised in Rouyn-Noranda and says she loves her city very much.

She is raising her children, aged seven to 17, but is beginning to question her relationship with her hometown.

“If you attach yourself to a healthy environment, is this attachment healthy?” he asked.

Isabelle Fortin-Rondeau was born and raised in Rouyn-Noranda and is raising her children there. He said he better not have to go – it would sound like he should quit.

“We love our city and it’s not Glencore’s. It’s ours and everyone who lives here. Our city deserves better than what it is today,” said Fortin-Rondeau.

A young lady smiles at the camera
Claudel Naud-Bellavance returned to her hometown of Rouyn-Noranda after her studies to work there as a family doctor and raise her two children. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

Clodel Naud-Bellavance, a family doctor, has a six-year-old daughter who attends the Notre-Dame-de-Protection primary school – 500 meters from the Horne Smelter.

“As a mother I am worried,” she said. “I don’t like to doubt my child’s health when he goes to school in Quebec in 2022.”

But Naud-Bellavance doesn’t plan on leaving her hometown anytime soon. “I still have hope for change,” he said.

New targets, new opposition

The Ministry of Environment of Horne Smelter and the Ministry of Environment of Quebec recently proposed a new joint goal: to reduce arsenic emissions to an annual average of 15 nanograms per cubic meter by 2027. The solvent, government and citizens have until November to reach an agreement.

Many citizens are struggling with this new system.

At a recent meeting where residents of the Notre-Dame area were invited to ask questions of public health officials in Quebec, more than 150 people showed up and Marianne Saucier, who is raising two teenage boys near the smelter, was one of them.

A woman is standing at the microphone, pointing with her finger
On September 1, Quebec public health officials met with 150 citizens at an event organized by CISSS Abitibi-Témiscamingue. Manon Lessard-Bélanger expressed concerns and questions among many others. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

He says he wants to “try to change things, so that the quality of the province is respected, it’s important. I can’t live like this without doing anything.”

Nicole Desgagnés is one of the spokespersons of the citizens’ committee group called ARET, the French acronym for stopping the release of toxic gas in Rouyn-Noranda.

He joined in 2019 when a study found four times higher levels of nails in children and adults in Rouyn-Noranda compared to those measured in the nearby town of Amos.

“We do a lot of research, a lot of learning. It’s almost a full-time job for most of us,” Desgagnés said.

She has lived in the city since 1981 and raised her four children there. His grandchildren now live in the Sacré-Coeur area. Desgagnés said he believes he has been overexposed to toxins for more than 40 years.

“On days when sulfur was in the air, we could not stay outside,” he said.

Desgagnés said he hopes his family will not have to leave Rouyn-Noranda but is considering their options.

A woman is standing by the water, with a chimney in the background.
Nicole Desgagnés lives across Osisko Lake. He can see the Horne Smelter towers behind his house. He is a member of the ARET citizens’ committee and promotes clean air in Rouyn-Noranda. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

The Quebec government has announced that it will work on soil pollution this fall. Desgagnés says decontamination has been going on since the 1980s but it’s useless if emissions continue.

“It gives the impression of doing something but it is not acceptable either [it’s] enough,” he said.

Desgagnés does not want the smelter to be closed but wants it to respect the province’s customs and that there be regulations about what materials are allowed to be processed there.

Two houses together
About 80 houses in the Notre-Dame area of ​​Rouyn-Noranda are very close to the Horne Smelter, which is considered by public health to be highly exposed to pollution. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

Importing heavy metals

Glencore Canada has government permits to import antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, organic cyanides, selenium, waste from surface treatment of metals and plastics and waste from the production of photographic chemicals and processing equipment.

The smelter is approved by the province to treat waste.

The Horne Smelter currently handles 710,000 tonnes of copper concentrates and 105,000 tonnes of recycled products and 50,000 tonnes of e-waste.

The smelter would not disclose how much arsenic those concentrates contain, saying the details are covered by non-disclosure agreements with its suppliers.

Smoke is coming from the yellow building.
The Horne Smelter has a historic exemption and is allowed to emit an annual average of 100 nanograms per cubic meter, 33 times more than the provincial norm. (Sandra Hercegova/CBC)

A recent report from Radio-Canada revealed that the Horne Smelter has, in five years, received over 340,000 tonnes of hazardous industrial waste, from as far afield as Russia, Singapore and Brazil.

Rouyn-Noranda image problem

“People are afraid that this will destroy the reputation of our city,” said Desgagnés. But he says it is important for people to come forward and talk about what is happening.

Citizens’ online consultation began on Sept. 6 and continues through Oct. 20 to allow residents to moderate Horne’s government laws until 2027.

On September 23, there will be a march to demand respect for the provincial regulation of three nanograms per cubic meter.

“If we show that we are a region that stands up and does not accept this, we can solve this problem,” said Desgagnés.


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