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An LNG site is under construction near Kitimat in April. The government won’t yet release the Kitimat Airshed Study.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The potential consequences of pollution from industrial development on the Kitimat airshed were significant enough for the province to ask for a report into possible cumulative health and environmental effects.

But now the government is refusing to release the report, saying it is subject to Crown privilege because it is part of discussions relating to liquefied natural gas development and won't be released until later this year.

That claim was outlined in correspondence related to a pending Environmental Appeal Board case in which two Kitimat residents are challenging a 2013 provincial permit that authorized increased sulphur dioxide emissions from the Kitimat aluminum smelter.

As part of that EAB case, lawyers for those Kitimat residents have been seeking a copy of the Kitimat Airshed Study, maintaining it would provide the most up-to-date information about emissions in the region. A hearing is scheduled for October.

The province has not agreed.

"We have not enclosed documents relating to the 2014 Kitimat Airshed Study … as these documents and the study itself are subject to a claim of Crown privilege," Dennis Doyle, a lawyer with the Ministry of the Attorney General, said in a June 3 letter to Chris Tollefson, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Centre in Victoria who is representing the appellants in the EAB proceeding.

In a follow-up letter dated June 12, Mr. Doyle said, "On the matter of the Kitimat Airshed Study I am instructed that this report was prepared to guide development of government policy on industrial development in the Kitimat area and to assist the executive council in its ongoing deliberations. It is not a report that was prepared for the Respondent and played no part of the decision-making process for the permit amendment which is now under appeal."

The respondent in the EAB proceeding is Rio Tinto Alcan, which is in the midst of a $3.3-billion upgrade of its Kitimat smelter, which began operating in 1954.

Rio Tinto Alcan says the upgrade will cut overall emissions by nearly 50 per cent. But under the provincial permit issued last year, sulphur dioxide emissions could increase by up to 56 per cent. (The upgraded smelter will produce nearly 50 per cent more aluminum and, on a per-tonne basis, sulphur dioxide emissions will remain the same, Rio Tinto Alcan says.)

But the potential increase in sulphur dioxide emissions worries Elisabeth Stannus, who is one of the appellants in the EAB case and would like to see the Kitimat airshed report become part of the EAB proceeding.

"We have been waiting for the report and they [the province] keep delaying it," Ms. Stannus said in a recent interview. "It is a body of evidence that could help determine whether we should be concerned, or not concerned, about S02 in the valley."

Kitimat City Council is also keen to see the report. In April, city council passed a motion to check on the status of the report. More recently, council was told a technical briefing would be held in Smithers, but to date that briefing has not taken place, Councillor Rob Goffinet said in a recent interview.

In an e-mail, a Ministry of Environment spokesperson said a draft report was received by the Ministry of Environment in late March. Since then, the report has "undergone review by other agencies, including the Ministry of Health." The report is now part of discussions around "cleanest LNG requirements, and will be released later this year," the spokesperson said.

According to a request for proposals, issued in October, the Kitimat airshed report was to study potential cumulative effects to environment and human health from existing and proposed industrial facilities in the Kitimat airshed. The request called for a final report by March 31, 2014.

The facilities include not only the upgraded smelter, but "three proposed LNG terminals, a proposed oil refinery, a crude oil export facility, and gas turbine powered electrical generation facilities," the request for proposals said.

The provincial government is trying to kickstart an LNG sector in the northwest part of the province, saying it wants three LNG facilities to be operating by 2020. The Kitimat airshed report is now part of negotiations relating to tax, environmental and other requirements for the sector.

Mr. Tollefson said he will keep trying to obtain a copy of the report. "I think it is essential to our case – the EAB is entitled to the most current and the most complete and best scientific evidence," he said. "And the document that fits that description is this report."

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