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The Quebec Government Announced it Will Lower Air Quality Regulations for Nickel. This is Why That’s a Bad Idea.

(Quebec, Canada) MiningWatch Canada and members of Québec Meilleure Mine strongly oppose a relaxation of air quality standards for nickel, as currently proposed by the Government of Quebec. 

On February 20, 2022, MiningWatch and Québec meilleure mine submitted their joint written comments to the Ministry of Environment and Fight Against Climate Change (MELCC). Their concerns and recommendations were presented as part of the consultations on the draft regulation to amend the Clear Air Regulation, which has proposed to raise the current daily allowable limits for nickel and to add an annual threshold. 

Background

When released into the air, nickel can be a polluting, toxic, and carcinogenic substance that can affect both public health and the environment.  Absent human intervention, nickel is found in trace quantities in the atmosphere. But during mining activities, such as in the exploration, exploitation, transformation and transportation phases, the presence of different nickel derivatives becomes concentrated – sometimes considerably so. Loading activities in mining and port facilities are particularly problematic since they can release large quantities of nickel in its various chemical compounds as dust into the air. 

The Quebec government already announced in March 2021 its intention to allow companies to release higher quantities of nickel into the air. In doing so, the government was responding to mining industry lobbyists who had been pressuring the government since 2013 – beginning with the multinational company Glencore. These efforts were matched by the Quebec Mining Association who, between 2015 and 2018, heavily lobbied to lower the standards in Quebec. 

Finally, on December 22, 2021, the Minister of Environment and Fight against Climate Change published in Quebec’s official Gazette draft regulation to amend the Clean Air Regulation. Two of the paragraphs published summarize the government’s objective behind this proposed regulatory amendment: 

"This draft regulation aims to reduce economic uncertainties associated with the application of the current standard, while upholding the protection of public health and the environment.  

"The changes in this proposed regulation have a positive impact on businesses as they will have more flexibility in their operations due to the addition of an annual standard [of acceptable nickel released into the air by each company]. They do not entail any new administrative formalities or additional costs for businesses. As for the impacts on citizens, the amendments make it possible to prevent and limit the impacts on public health to a level qualified as acceptable according to the air quality standards and criteria in Quebec.” 

In subsequent public statements, government officials have sought to justify the need to lower current standards so that Quebec can be more competitive in implementing a mine-to-market approach to its battery industry, from mining raw materials to producing electric vehicles. In an email to Radio-Canada, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economy and Innovation stated that, “amending the nickel standard will ensure the continuation of projects by companies in the sector and support the many efforts to create a comprehensive battery manufacturing industry in Quebec.”

Immediate outcry

The backlash against the weakening of nickel standards was swift and led to significant citizen organizing in response, even in spite of the fact that the designated 45-day consultation period coincided with the start of the vacation season in Quebec – which took place under curfew orders related to COVID-19 in the province of Quebec. 

Within civil society, the citizen’s watch group Vigilance Port de Québec led organizing efforts, and MiningWatch Canada and Québec meilleure mine took part. The City of Québec quickly spoke out against the provincial government’s move to weaken nickel standards. 

Even the public health departments unanimously took a stance against the regulatory change, calling on the Minister of Environment to uphold the current standard. The Quebec Association of Physicians for the Environment also spoke out against any lowering of air quality standards.

Our arguments against the easing of nickel standards

MiningWatch Canada and Québec meilleure mine believe that the proposed lowering of air nickel standards violates several principles enshrined in Quebec's Sustainable Development Act, including the principles of health and quality of life, precaution, prevention, access to knowledge and polluter pays. Like the City of Quebec and many citizen, environmental and public health organizations, we have asked the Quebec government to reverse its decision, maintain current standards, to install more stations to measure air pollutants near sources of pollution, to publish ambient air quality data, to identify and sanction violators and, most importantly, require industrial polluters to invest in implementing best practices and technologies to reduce emissions.

The denied principles enshrined in the Sustainable Development Act are namely the principles of health and quality of life, prevention, precaution, and polluter pays. In order to ensure added value for minerals produced in Quebec, we have urged the government to follow global trends of tightening environmental standards to meet the growing demands of markets, manufacturers, investors and consumers, particularly in the electronics and automotive sectors – not by relaxing standards. 

Furthermore, if the government wishes to take concrete steps to reduce the environmental and energy footprint of its economy while promoting the development of the critical and strategic minerals sector, we encourage the government to adopt eco-fiscal policies aimed at reducing irrelevant mining activities in the context of a climate emergency, while supporting workers and populations in regions that may be affected by these measures with rewarding and responsible alternatives. 

For more information, we invite you to read our submission.

A powerful display of citizen activism

For all of its work, we would like to highlight the exemplary organizing work of the citizen watchdog Vigilance Port de Québec. For several years now, this organization has been actively participating in the collection and dissemination of information and testimonies on the environmental impacts of industrial activities in the Port de Québec. To follow their activities or join their group, visit their Facebook page, Facebook group, or website

What's next?

The Ministry of Environment and Fight Against Climate Change (MELCC) is currently reviewing the comments it received during the 45-day consultation. At a minimum, we hope they take note of the broad consensus against the government’s attempt to lower environmental requirements. Further consideration of the draft regulation will now be examined by a parliamentary committee at the Quebec National Assembly. 

We cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring the best possible air quality for the general population, and particularly those living near sites of pollution. Beyond addressing air quality issues specific to Quebec City, it is also important to pay attention to the air quality and risks for the environment and residents living near other sites of pollution throughout the province.

None of the studies that support the current MELCC proposal take these sites into account. Particularly ignored are the realities of communities impacted by factories that transform and recycle metals, including nickel. Such is the case with the residents of  Rouyn-Noranda, who are already severely affected by emissions from Glencore’s Horne smelter. Likewise, concerns exist about the health of the Nunavimiut people and the ecosystems in the vicinity of Glencore’s Raglan nickel mine and Canadian Royalties’ Nunavik Nickel – both operating in Nunavik. Consideration must also be given to other ecosystems and populations that may be affected in the coming years by projects extracting nickel, iron, and other platinum group elements derived from nickel by-products, including projects already identified by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources: Dumont Nickel (Abitibi-Témiscamingue), Bravo (Nunavik), Hawk Ridge (Nunavik), Lac Menarik (Eeyou Istchee), Lac Rocher (Eeyou Istchee), Nisk-1 (Eeyou Istchee) and Grasset (Eeyou Istchee).

Some of these projects have already obtained certificates of authorization based on environmental studies that took into account a stricter air protection standard for nickel. Lowering the standard could render these studies and licenses null and void, exposing Quebec or the industry in general to legal recourse – in particular, to demand the reassessment of the health, environmental, and ecotoxicological impacts associated with increased emissions of air pollutants. 

One thing is certain: at MiningWatch Canada and Québec meilleure mine, we will continue to closely follow how this situation unfolds and will continue to stress the critical importance of tightening – not relaxing! – the regulatory and legislative framework surrounding mining activities. 

Other key submissions made during the consultation (all in French):