Quebec plan to ease limits on nickel emissions irks regional health boards


Environment Minister Benoit Charette says his government will forge ahead with a plan to relax regulations on nickel emissions in line with European standards, despite pushback from a wide array of groups.

The Quebec City Port and adjacent Limoilou neighbourhood have the highest atmospheric concentration of nickel in all of Canada. (Carl Boivin/Radio-Canada)

Environment Minister Benoit Charette says the CAQ government will forge ahead with a plan to relax provincial regulations on nickel emissions, despite pushback from regional health authorities, opposition parties, the Quebec City mayor and citizens’ groups.

A proposed regulation introduced last December laid out the plan to increase the amount of nickel allowed in the air per day from 14 nanograms per cubic metre (ng/m³) to a maximum of 70 ng/m³ — providing the annual average is 20 ng/m³ or lower.

Charette said the move is part of the province’s transition to cleaner energy and is supported by Quebec’s public health institute, the INSPQ, and the latest scientific data.

“I have a very clear mandate to fight against climate change, to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” Charette told reporters at the National Assembly Thursday. “We have to electrify our transportation, and to do that we need nickel.”

Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette says a motion to amend nickel standards to allow higher emissions is backed by provincial public health authorities and won’t pose significant risks to people’s health or the environment. (Charles Contant/Radio-Canada)

Since 2013, Quebec has had some of the strictest regulations on nickel emissions in the world, allowing only 14 ng/m³ of nickel in the air per day.

In the Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nunavik regions, where nickel mines are located, emissions have surpassed that threshold on several occasions. The same holds true for the Quebec City neighbourhood of Limoilou, which is close to several emission-spewing factories and a major port.

In high concentrations, nickel is carcinogenic. But demand for the silvery white metal, most commonly used to strengthen stainless steel, has seen a resurgence, as nickel is a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric and hybrid vehicles.

Regional health authorities push back

Quebec City has asked to be exempt from the proposed higher emission rules. People who live in Limoilou have also protested against the proposed changes.

All the opposition parties in the National Assembly, Québec Solidaire, the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québecois, have voiced their disapproval as well.

Quebec’s 18 regional health authorities all oppose the new regulations, recently submitting a 12-page document as part of public consultations on the proposed regulatory change.

Among their arguments, they say:

  • the government lacks information on the health risks associated with nickel inhalation.
  • it hasn’t completely justified the economic benefits.
  • it does not have the support of people living in some of the areas that would be most affected by higher emissions.

In their memo, the regional health directors say given all of the uncertainty, they want Quebec to maintain the status quo. But Charette insists the province has done its due diligence.

“I don’t want to question the good faith of the regional [health] authorities,” he said.”But the work that started years ago was done and validated by provincial public health [officials] and not the regional authorities.”

A representative for the INSPQ was part of an inter-ministerial group tasked with reviewing the findings of independent experts and studying the impact increased emissions could have on people’s health, the environment and the economy. The full report is available online.

The Ministry of Health and Social Services has also approved the plan but says nickel emissions and air quality will need to be carefully monitored and preventive measures put in place to make sure the new norms are respected.

Striking a balance

Queen’s University Prof. Warren Mabee, director of the school’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, says the new regulations are on par with what’s allowed in Ontario and Europe and allow for occasional daily spikes while aiming for a low annual average.

He says he understands why people living in Limoilou — which has the highest atmospheric nickel concentration in all of Canada — would be concerned, but says for Canada to meet its climate goals, several regulations will have to change.

The director of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Prof. Warren Mabee, says as Canadians shift from gas and diesel to renewable energy, we need to carefully consider the tradeoffs and mitigate the risks to health and the environment. (Marc Godbout/Radio-Canada)

“We’re on a roughly 28-year timeline, and our goal is to get to net zero by 2050,” he said. “The loss in time that would happen with four years of discussion of everything that has to change may be the Achilles heel that stops us from achieving what we need to achieve.”

Still, Mabee says the government needs to clearly lay out the motives behind a major shift in policy — something he feels Quebec didn’t do well in this case.

“We need to put all of these changes into context so as we go into a transition, individual Canadians can feel more comfortable,” he said, “so they can understand why certain things are going to need to change in coming years.”

He says as we shift from gas and diesel to renewable energy we need to carefully consider the tradeoffs and mitigate the risks to health and the environment.

“So we can say, ‘Yes, we need more electric vehicles, but these are the safeguards that we need to put in place now, so that we don’t end up creating just as big of a problem 30 years down the road.”

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