A rezoning application for the proposed Fortune Minerals Saskatchewan Metals Processing Plant (SMPP) near Langham is expected to come before Corman Park council sometime this fall, and a decision is likely before the end of the year.
A public open house on the SMPP project organized by Fortune Minerals drew a capacity crowd to the Langham community hall on Thursday, July 5.
While critics of the project contend that waste material from the proposed refinery poses a risk to an underground aquifer in the area; proponents maintain the project will be environmentally safe over its 20-year life span and beyond, and also provide an economic boost to the area by directly employing up to 90 people.
Corman Park councilors were among those attending the open house. Reeve Judy Harwood said council members want to have “all the facts” regarding the refinery prior to the public hearing in the council chambers this fall.
“This is not a Corman Park event,” said Harwood in an interview at the open house in Langham. “This is being put on by Fortune Minerals.
“I think people are here because they want to let their concerns be known. I haven’t run into anyone who has been disrespectful at all. Their questions have been very open, and there is a lot of dialogue.
“However, I have to say that with everyone I’ve spoken to so far, I know which way they’re leaning. This kind of event draws people out who are very passionate,.”
Harwood said the rezoning application for the proposed refinery issue is very important, particularly for residents of the immediate area.
“Invariably the concerns all come down to water,” she said. “The big concern is about possible leaching of the waste that is going to be stored in covered pits on the surface.
“What happens if that doesn’t work? There is no answer. The only thing I can say is, the provincial government approved this proposal several years ago after it went through environmental reviews. But if you’re a dairy farmer or someone who draws their water from that aquifer, it’s obviously still going to be a concern.”
According to Fortune Minerals, the SMPP will produce cobalt chemicals to be used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries, as well as small amounts of gold, bismuth and copper products.
Fortune Minerals Chief Operating Officer Glen Koropchuk said the large turnout at the open house was expected.
“We’re getting a full range of questions from people about environmental issues that concern them,” said Koropchuk. “We’re also fielding questions about the jobs that will be created; about cobalt and bismuth and why those metals are important to the new green economy.
“We want to make sure we answer the most pointed questions, because if anyone is critical, we need to address those concerns.
“We may not convince everybody, but we’re going to go through the process the RM has outlined for us. We’ll know by the end of the year, whenever the process ends, what the answer is.
“If it’s yes, in good faith, we’ll continue, and involve the community in our monitoring and by employing them.
“We’re going to be a good corporate citizen. We’re going to make sure we do it right.
“If the answer is no, we’ll look for another community, because we believe it’s important for us as Canadians to participate in the green economy in an environmentally responsible way.”
Saskatchewan Environmental Society Board member Peter Prebble said while the open house format provided an opportunity for dialogue, he was disappointed there was no public question and answer session.
“I think the open house doesn’t really provide an opportunity to ask questions in a public arena, where everybody can hear the responses,” said Prebble in an interview. “I think it would have been good to have both an open house and a larger public meeting.”
Prebble said he hasn’t had a chance to thoroughly examine the company’s recently-completed comprehensive report, but noted his major concern is the waste residue that will be left permanently behind.
“There is the potential for that to do damage to the groundwater or make its way into the larger environment at some point in the future,” said Prebble.
He acknowledged the waste material will be stored in lined pits and will be covered, but said the arsenic in the waste is very carcinogenic.
“There could be chemical interactions in these pits that could change the chemical nature of the arsenic, potentially making it more dangerous over time,” said Prebble. “So I am not convinced that it is wise to have large volumes of arsenic-laced waste located in an area that is close to Langham, close to surrounding farmland and the North Saskatchewan River, or potentially close to residential development that may take place 30 or 40 years in the future. It would have been better to have it in a more remote location.”
Fortune Minerals Environmental and Regulatory Affairs Vice-President Rick Schryer said the arsenic in the waste is a “stable compound” that poses minimal risk.
“One of the by-products is Scorodite, or ferric arsenate,” said Schryer. “When people hear the word arsenic, they think of poison. But this compound is very stable. Water with a pH of 5 will pass through it. The only way you can affect Scorodite is to expose it to a very low pH water, say a pH of 2, which is very acidic, like vinegar.
“By covering the process residue in the surface pits, we can prevent any exposure to moisture and that mitigates any danger. Not only is the compound stable, but the storage facilities we’re proposing are built better than those for the uranium industry, which are designed to hold radioactive tailings.
“We’ve done our homework in designing a facility that can be left permanently without any problem. But we’ll still be monitoring it post-closure to prove it’s still safe.”
Schryer said the company is committed to providing funding to an independent community monitoring group made up of five people from the immediate area.
“This independent body would look at all the data we generate through our monitoring programs, so they could have input into how the property is being operated and managed throughout the life of the project and even into post-closure,” said Schryer. “The funding will enable them to hire their own consultants to provide independent expertise. It’s another level of scrutiny. When people have concerns they can get the information directly from this independent group, rather than from us or from the government.”
Schryer said as a result of feedback from the community over the past four years, the company has made several adjustments to its proposal, including reducing the amount of water needed for the refinery’s operation, and ensuring all waste storage pits are covered.
Dalmeny Mayor Jon Kroeker was among those attending the open house. He said he was hoping there would be “some back-and-forth” dialogue in a public meeting.
“I think that kind of format is a better way to gauge the public response,” said Kroeker. “I want to know what the public is thinking.”
Kroeker said education is key to people making an informed decision.
“Uncertainty is a fact of life,” said Kroeker. “Nobody can predict what will happen in the future.
“I think Fortune Minerals has a lot of science on its side. But there is also a strong current of fear out there, and I don’t know if Fortune Minerals can say anything that will change that. If they can’t eliminate that fear, there will be no middle ground.”