KITIMAT, B.C.—A ceremonial first pour of molten metal at Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum plant marked the completion of a multibillion-dollar modernization project in the northern British Columbia community of Kitimat.
Plant manager Gaby Poirier said the upgraded smelter will not reach full production until next year, but the pouring celebration starts shipments of aluminum for export from Kitimat’s port.
Poirier said the US$4.8-billion project created about 3,600 construction jobs at its peak and the upgrade cuts emissions in half. Aluminum production is expected to increase by 48 per cent to 420,000 tonnes a year.
“We are at the start of a new era for the smelter where we will become a supplier of high-quality, low-carbon footprint aluminum to the Pacific Rim,” he said. “For us, what’s the most important is with the new smelter we’re securing jobs for the future here in northern B.C. We’re aiming for nothing less than another 60 years.”
The upgraded smelter will employ 1,000 people, at least 1,000 fewer people than employed at the old smelter during the 1970s.
Four generations of Kitimat families have worked at the smelter since 1954, Poirier said. The community of about 10,000 residents was carved out of the wilderness to make room for a new industry and what was North America’s first planned city.
The smelter’s modernization cuts overall emissions, including hydrocarbons, fluorides and greenhouse gases, by an overall average of 50 per cent, but sulphur-dioxide emissions will increase by 56 per cent, Rio Tinto states on its company website.
The Ministry of Environment granted the company a permit to increase sulphur-dioxide emissions as part of the upgrade, but some Kitimat residents have appealed the permit.
Environmental groups and residents have said the increase in sulphur-dioxide emissions can cause potential health and environmental harms.
Court documents filed by Unifor Local 2301 last March on behalf of Kitimat smelter workers claim the B.C. government permitted Rio Tinto Alcan to undertake its smelter modernization without requiring the company to reduce harmful sulphur-dioxide emissions.
The petition seeks to set aside the government’s approval under the Environmental Management Act on the grounds of failure to consider expert advice on pollution-reduction measures, including installing scrubbers to prevent adverse effects on human health.
Last July, B.C.’s Environment Ministry released an independent, government-funded report that concluded with proper management, Kitimat’s air, water, land and residents can handle prospective oil, gas and aluminum industry expansions in the area.
Kitimat is in the midst of an industrial boom with the development of at least three proposed liquefied natural gas export plants and the completion of the Rio Tinto upgrade. The community was in the economic doldrums less than a decade ago.