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The view looking north along Avenue du Portage, towards the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., on Dec. 6, 2022. The smelter benefits from special permission to exceed provincial norms for arsenic concentrations.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The Quebec government announced Thursday an $88-million, five-year plan to relocate about 200 households near the province’s largest emitter of arsenic and other toxic contaminants.

At the same time it officially renewed the facility’s permission to pollute at rates multiple times the limits set elsewhere.

Dozens of residential buildings in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., will be demolished to make way for a buffer zone between the hulking Horne copper smelter and the rest of the city.

While Glencore, the multinational corporation that owns the smelter, will pay for the homes, their demolition and the greening of the buffer zone, Quebec will pick up the tab for the relocation and other measures, according to the government’s plan.

Quebec also announced the creation of an environmental monitoring committee and a research observatory to determine the impact of the contaminants on health and on the environment.

François Deschênes, 54, is among the homeowners who will be displaced. He has lived on 7th Avenue, “four houses from the smelter,” as he put it, for the past 22 years.

The long-time resident is worried about the relocation process and whether the unspecified new neighbourhood would be close to groceries, transit and other services. Nonetheless, “we want to leave the neighbourhood for sure after all we’ve learned,” Mr. Deschênes said.

A public-health report released last year showed that locals face higher risks of cancer than the rest of the population – linked to high concentrations of arsenic and other toxic contaminants emitted by the Horne smelter.

This and other similar revelations about the contaminants worried Mr. Deschênes and many of his neighbours, spurring debates about the right compromise to strike between the economic opportunities provided by the smelter and its health and environmental costs.

Many feel the costs are not borne enough by the smelter’s owner. Glencore, a Switzerland-based mining and industrial giant, made record profit and generated US$256-billion of revenue in 2022, the company announced in February.

“I don’t think the government should pay; I don’t think taxpayers should pay,” Mr. Deschênes said of the $88-million relocation plan.

Nicole Desgagnés, a spokesperson for the concerned citizens group ARET, agreed that taxpayers should not bear relocation costs. In an interview, she added that the buffer zone seems arbitrary given that many other households near the smelter would not be relocated.

Glencore spokesperson Alexis Segal said in a statement the buffer zone was defined by the Quebec government, “in accordance with analysis from the regional Public Health,” and that the company’s contribution to relocation would amount to tens of millions of dollars.

Ms. Desgagnés also said the government showed contempt for residents by not meeting with them or even allowing them to hear about the plan in person. Environment Minister Benoit Charette and Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest were in Rouyn-Noranda on Thursday to make the announcement.

Mr. Deschênes learned through the media that he would be asked to relocate, and was denied access to the news conference, he said.

But most of all, Ms. Desgagnés said, the relocation plan disregards what residents said they wanted during consultations last fall, which is mainly for toxic emissions to be reduced.

Earlier this year, Glencore released data from the measuring station nearest to the smelter showing an average arsenic concentration of 73 nanograms per cubic metre of air in 2022, or 24 times the three-nanogram limit required everywhere else in the province. The results “correspond to the performance expected from the plan to reduce atmospheric emissions,” Glencore said at the time.

An average arsenic concentration of 100 nanograms per cubic metre, or 33 times the provincial limit, is allowed near the Horne smelter, which benefits from special permission to exceed provincial norms.

Despite calls by local residents, doctors and activists to impose the three-nanogram limit on the smelter, which Glencore has said is technically impossible, Premier François Legault’s government refused to go that far. Instead, they asked for a decline in concentrations up to 15 nanograms of arsenic, five times the provincial limit, in 2027.

Mr. Segal said Glencore continues to work to find ways to reduce its air emissions to a minimum and plans to achieve the three-nanogram limit in 84 per cent of Rouyn-Noranda’s urban perimeter within five years.