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Environmental groups are being given a chance to appeal the environmental permit that allowed the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter in Kitimat to increase sulphur dioxide emissions.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The B.C. Supreme Court has granted environmental activists a chance to overturn the environmental permit for the $3.3-billion upgrade of the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter in Kitimat.

Last April, the provincial Ministry of Environment authorized Rio Tinto to increase sulphur dioxide emissions, paving the way for the massive modernization and expansion project. There are more than 2,400 construction workers on site, and the project is already over budget. The opponents, including two environmental organizations as well as a handful of local citizens, want Rio Tinto to install sulphur dioxide scrubbers, which could add more than $150-million to the upgrade. The process removes sulphur dioxide from the stacks.

Two environmental groups, along with residents of both Terrace and Kitimat, sought to appeal the permit, saying the smelter upgrade would threaten human health and the environment in the Kitimat-Terrace airshed.

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But the Environmental Appeal Board refused to grant standing to all but two Kitimat residents, ruling that the others did not qualify as a "person aggrieved." The coastal community of Kitimat is at the heart of the B.C. government's ambitions to establish a liquefied natural gas industry, but little is known about how much pollution the community's airshed can absorb. A government report that examines the region's air quality is due this spring.

In his oral reasons for the decision, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Brian MacKenzie said the increase of sulphur dioxide emissions, from 27 tonnes daily to 42 tonnes, is "of significant importance to the petitioners and the public in general."

He said there was a serious breach of the petitioners' right to procedural fairness by the appeal board. The board must now reconsider whether residents of Terrace and the the groups, SkeenaWild Conservation and Lakelse Watershed Stewards, should have standing on an appeal of the permit.

Justice MacKenzie also said the board set "much too high" a standard in denying the groups standing on the appeal.

Chris Tollefson, a lawyer from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre representing the smelter project's opponents, called the ruling a "very important victory for access to justice."

Speaking outside the Victoria courthouse, Mr. Tollefson said there is now a clear standard, across the country, for reasonable access to gain standing at tribunals. Mr. Tollefson added that the ruling should allow his clients to win standing at the appeal of the Rio Tinto environmental certificate.

The air-quality concerns are part of a larger battle over the future of development in Kitimat.

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Last October, the B.C. Environment Ministry began collecting soil and water samples to test how much more industry it can permit in Kitimat, even as the government pursues LNG plants that are expected to be mostly gas-fired.

The province hopes to see three LNG operations built on the shores of Kitimat, which is also the proposed marine terminal for the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline.

What is not clear, however, is what the province will do if its study concludes that the proposed projects exceed the capacity of what the region's environment can sustain.

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