Residents of an east Saint John community are expressing concern over the release of a mysterious snow-like substance from the Irving Oil refinery on Nov. 12.
Two days after the release, a letter from Irving Oil to some Red Head residents revealed that the white powder was particulate matter from Canada’s largest oil refinery.
The letter, from Rebecca Belliveau, Irving Oil’s Community Relations Specialist, apologized for a technical issue that was experienced during the start-up of the Fluidized Catalytic Cracking Unit, resulting in the release of particulate matter. The letter did not disclose what was in the particulate matter, the amount or the extent of the release or whether it was a public health concern. Enclosed in the letter was a $30 Irving gift card.
Lynana Astephen, a Red Head resident, says she is waiting for a response from Irving Oil about what exactly was released.
“The letters do not reveal what toxic chemicals were released and what harm it is to their health. Was this in violation to any environmental regulations and are residents being bribed with a measly gift card?” says Astephen.
Department of Environment spokesperson Marc André Chiasson told CBC on Nov. 15 that his department is investigating while noting that the release is probably more of “nuisance” than cause for any real concern. However, lung health advocates point to how particulate matter can damage lungs.
Particulate matter is not the only environmental health concern weighing heavily on the residents of Red Head and other East Saint John communities, including Champlain Heights and Forest Hills, located next to a cluster of industrial polluters.
Residents there breathe air with benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at levels that exceed safe human health guidelines. Air quality monitoring done in 2012 and 2013 revealed benzene levels of around 0.45 ppb, which exceeds Ontario’s safe benzene level of 0.14 ppb. New Brunswick has yet to establish a safe guideline for the carcinogen in the air.
“Residents of Saint John are already subject to 38 times the industrial pollution released in Fredericton and 243 times the amount released in Moncton,” according to Inka Milewski in a story by the NB Media Co-op.
Milewski conducted a study on cancer in New Brunswick’s communities in 2009. Her research found that lung cancer rates in Saint John were 40 to 50 per cent higher than in Fredericton and Moncton while smoking rates in the city were lower than not only the provincial rate but also the national rate.
Beyond advocating for a community health assessment in Saint John, Milewski wants environmental regulations in the province to be strengthened and enforced to better protect public health. However, the largest industrial interest in the province is considered the largest roadblock to better regulations.
Irving Oil has a track record of not complying with environmental regulations and for causing a number of “environmental emergencies” at its facilities in Saint John and elsewhere in eastern Canada. The emergencies include petroleum spills of up to 3,000 barrels and refinery emissions of sulfur dioxide that exceed allowable levels.
The provincial government has also been blamed for not forcing the company to comply or do environmental impact assessments, such as on its oil-by-rail terminal that emit VOCs.
Operational problems have plagued the Irving Oil refinery since at least 2010, causing the release of ash-like substances into Saint John’s air, which worry residents, as reported by The National Observer in their 2016 House of Irvings series.
Meanwhile, Astephen, as she awaits a response from Irving Oil and the government, has been researching the release of white powder at oil refineries in other places. She notes that a Caltex Refinery in Australia was fined $60,000 after white dust and waste gas was released from their facility in two separate incidents in 2014. The white dust that fell there also covered cars as well as workers.
“Refineries are located in so-called cancer alleys. This is no exception,” says Astephen.