A call from a woman concerned about dark smoke billowing from a reopened mill in Miramichi prompted the Conservation Council’s Inka Milewski to investigate. She found that the province of New Brunswick had relaxed controls on emissions of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, cancer-causing pollutants, from the Arbec Mill.
Milewski is concerned by what she found in the mill’s operating permit. The permit issued by New Brunswick’s Department of Environment in 2012 allows for 140 metric tonnes of formaldehyde emissions per year, more than what was allowed for most of the time that Weyerhaeuser ran the mill. While Weyerheauser operated the mill, it released the greatest amount of cancer-causing pollutants into the air of any industrial facility in the province, according to Environment Canada’s national pollutant release inventory.
“Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are more than just cancer causing pollutants, they are suspected developmental toxicants and can affect immune systems, kidney, lung and neurological functions and they are toxic to skin,” says Milewski, the Conservation Council’s Science Advisor whose home and farm is located just north of the mill.
The Conservation Council is asking the province of New Brunswick to reinstate and enforce pollution controls on formaldehyde emissions from the mill and set limits on their acetaldehyde emissions.
Milewski also wants the environment department to work with public health to undertake a health impact assessment in Miramichi, specifically calling on the government to do a study on formaldehyde levels in homes located within the pollution footprint of the plant to determine what contribution emissions from the facility make to the overall residential indoor air quality.
Exposure to formaldehyde has been associated with leukemia, nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancers. A 2009 study on cancer by the Conservation Council found that males in Miramichi had the highest provincial rates of Hodgkin’s disease, a type of lymphoma, at almost double the provincial rate. Hodgkin’s disease has been linked to men employed in wood processing industries.
In response to Milewski’s call to lower emissions from the mill, the Department of Environment is arguing that there was a six-month public review for Arbec’s approval to operate and the provincial government received no submissions.
Elizabeth Copeland was the concerned resident who contacted Milewski. “I agree that we need to create jobs in our fair city but we must protect the health of our workers and residents living in the fallout of the mill,” says Copeland. “I read the newspaper regularly and I never saw a public notice for comments on the Arbec’s approval to operate. I must have missed it. I did see pages of promotions celebrating Arbec in Miramichi.”
Arbec Forest Products reopened the oriented strand board (OSB) mill located in a residential area along the Miramichi River in late 2012. The mill was previously owned and operated by Weyerheauser. Weyerheauser closed the mill in 2007, citing poor demand for its OSB products in the U.S.
The Arbec mill employs 100 people in the small city of 25,000. Miramichi was hit hard by the closure of the UPM-Kynneme pulp and paper mill, also in 2007. The mill had employed 1,200 workers. In 2005, there were 60 major employers in the region, and 18,000 people employed in Miramichi. Five years later, in 2010, there were only about 40 major employers left, the hospital became the largest employer, and only about 10,000 Miramichiers were employed.
“Workers are doing all they can to cope with the rapid deterioration of the labour market in Miramichi. They are surviving with severance pay, Employment Insurance cheques, short-term training support, insecure and low-paid job opportunities in the region or by travelling daily or weekly in and out of the region for job opportunities in the province or across the country,” wrote Sylvain Schetagne, a senior economist with the Canadian Labour Congress in late 2010.
“Our plan to rebuild New Brunswick focuses on creating jobs and economic opportunities in the Miramichi region,” said Premier David Alward at the opening of the Arbec mill on Nov. 2, 2012. “Arbec Forest Products Inc. is an important partner in re-energizing the economy of the Miramichi and in bringing our workers home to their families. Our government is proud to invest in the communities of this region and to celebrate their successes today.”
The reopening of the Arbec mill was supported with public funds; $15.3 million from the province of New Brunswick and a $2 million business loan from the federal government.
Copeland who chose to make scenic Miramichi her home two years ago is not asking for the mill to close but for the government to ensure that the mill’s operations do not harm Miramichiers. She says, “The anticipated profits for Arbec in the next year hover in the $60 million dollar range. With those kinds of massive profits, certainly some of that money could be used to lower the toxic emissions from that mill for the health of the citizens of Miramichi.”