Minister Benoît Charette acknowledged Wednesday morning that current arsenic emissions from the Horne smelter are unacceptable. He nevertheless maintains that it is not the fault of the Legault government, but rather of the previous government.
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“The current emissions, they are unacceptable, and they must be lowered”, launched the Minister of the Environment, without however specifying what would be an acceptable standard in the circumstances.
If he considers that it will eventually be necessary for emissions to “get closer” to the provincial standard of three nanograms per cubic meter, he does not exclude that the standard remains more flexible in Rouyn-Noranda.
“We mentioned the possibility of 30 nanograms, but it is public health that will help the MELCCQ to establish what will be the standard that will mitigate the health risks,” he said.
Currently, the Horne smelter has capped, by grandfathering, at a level of 100 nanograms per cubic meter.
Mr. Charette also recalled that the government is evaluating all possibilities, including that of closing the plant, but he stressed that an immediate closure would represent a risk for public health.
"There are hundreds of families, even thousands of people who directly or indirectly live from this business," he explained. Closing it overnight, from a public health point of view, there is a significant impact, and it is also considered.
While the opposition accuses the government of having done nothing in recent years to improve air quality in Rouyn-Noranda, the Minister of the Environment believes, on the contrary, that the Legault government is the first to "give the importance it requires" to this situation, evoking among other things "the establishment of an interdepartmental committee which allows for follow-up".
As the contract between the government and Glencore, the company that owns the Horne smelter, expires in the coming months, Benoit Charette also considers that “the timing is excellent”.
"This will be an opportunity for us to arrive with a much more severe, much more ambitious certificate," he argued.
If the Legault government has not done more in recent years to improve the situation, it is because its hands were tied by the previous government, claimed the minister.
“Previous governments did not take the issue seriously enough. The requirements were not high enough, which will change with the next certification period.
When asked whether the government could have adopted certain measures despite the contract that had been signed, the minister was intractable.
“It is in the law, it is a review every five years. It was the previous government that set the standards between 2017 and 2022,” he said.
When asked if he had seen the annex containing preliminary data indicating an abnormally high cancer rate, which had been removed from a report at the request of the former national director of Public Health, Horacio Arruda, Benoit Charette was unable to give a precise answer.
“Honestly, in terms of this schedule (…) you have to do with public health. I did not hear about this request for withdrawal or this withdrawal,” he said.
He then assured that this data was not hidden from him, before admitting a few seconds later that he “did not see” the annex. “The appendix in question, for my part, I had not seen it. I guess that public health preferred to have all the elements of the answer before circulating this document.
More cases of cancer
On Wednesday morning, the National Institute of Public Health (INSPQ) finally published its report on the situation in Rouyn-Noranda. If the status quo continues, there could be 13 to 554 additional cases of lung cancer per million population.
This proportion would be between 6.7 and 288 additional cases if arsenic emissions in the city were lowered to the level of the Quebec standard, which is three nanograms per cubic meter.
The INSPQ calculation is based on an exposure scenario 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 70 years.
“We go far beyond the normally acceptable risks that we want to avoid when we are exposed to such contaminants. It is not because these figures represent smaller risks in terms of number that we must dodge the challenge that this represents, ”explained Dr. Boileau.
Public Health will nevertheless carry out more studies in the coming weeks in order to understand "as quickly as possible" the causes of the current situation, and whether other factors may contribute to this greater risk of suffering from cancer of the breast. lung.
Dr. Boileau's explanations did not satisfy the supportive MP for Rouyn-Noranda, Émilise Lessard-Therrien, who called the press conference "an exercise in public health".
“No concrete action plan has been presented to quickly reduce arsenic emissions into the air of Rouyn-Noranda. Worse, Dr. Boileau refused to take a clear position for the Foundry to be subject to the standard of three nanograms applied everywhere else in Quebec, when it is precisely his mandate to make recommendations to protect people's health. she lamented in a press release.