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The waters of Douglas Channel are shown from the town of Kitimat, British Columbia April 12, 2014.

Reuters

An environmental group is challenging the government's delayed release of a report that assesses the potential impact of industrial development on air quality in Kitimat, saying the report should be made public now.

"The airshed study was paid for by taxpayers and as such we should be given the rights to read it," Lucy McRae, secretary of Kitimat-based Douglas Channel Watch, said in a June 25 e-mail to government representatives, including the provincial environment ministry.

"All the citizens of Kitimat and Kitamaat have great concerns about our airshed … it is in no way fair to subject those people who already have breathing issues from years of living in an industrial townsite to even further stressful concerns in the uncertainties of how these emission increases will affect them."

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The government commissioned a report into the potential cumulative environmental and health impacts of industrial development in the Kitimat Airshed last year. An October request for proposals called for the study to be completed in March.

The report was to look at the impact of emissions from an expanded aluminum smelter as well as up to three liquefied natural gas plants in the coastal region.

Interested stakeholders – including Douglas Channel Watch and Kitimat City Council – expected to see the report this spring. So far, however, the report has not been publicly released.

As previously reported in The Globe and Mail, the report and supporting documents are now subject to a claim of Crown privilege – a concept that, in general terms, allows governments to withhold documents if disclosing them would not be in the government's interest.

That claim was outlined in correspondence between the province and lawyers for two Kitimat residents who have asked B.C.'s Environmental Appeal Board to overturn a 2013 permit that authorizes an increase in sulphur dioxide emissions from the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter.

The province says the Ministry of the Environment received a draft report in March and that "it is now part of discussions around cleanest LNG requirements and will be released later this year."

The province wants to kickstart an LNG industry in the northwest and would like to see three LNG plants operating by 2020. Details relating to the sector, including a final tax regime, are still being negotiated, with the Kitimat Airshed Study now wrapped up in those discussions.

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That timing doesn't sit well with either Douglas Channel Watch or the appellants in the EAB proceeding, who would like to see the study now.

"Our group is involved in consultation with LNG Canada in Kitimat and were hoping that in this next phase of their [environmental assessment] process, we would have the Airshed Report so that we would be able to ask the appropriate questions about their planned operations and emissions," Ms. McRae said in her e-mail.

LNG Canada is a joint venture that has proposed building an LNG facility near Kitimat.

"Without the report we are not where we wanted to be at this time in regard to our knowledge base," Ms. McRae said.

Lawyers for the appellants in the EAB proceeding would like to see the Kitimat Airshed Report because it would provide the most up-to-date information about industrial emissions in the region.

The EAB proceeding concerns emissions from an aluminum smelter in Kitimat. The smelter, built in 1954, is in the midst of a $3.3-billion upgrade that will increase smelting capacity by nearly 50 per cent and also increase sulphur dioxide emissions by up to 56 per cent. Overall emissions will decrease by nearly 50 per cent. Rio Tinto Alcan says research indicates any impacts from sulphur dioxide emssions are "manageable."

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