07 December 2017
Did climate change worsen the Southern California fires?
Seven of the state’s 10 largest modern wildfires have occurred in the last 14 years.
Algoma Steel continues to exceed Canada’s standard air pollution limits for cancer-causing compounds and struggles with spills as it pushes toward a “green” makeover.
SAULT SAINTE MARIE, Mich. — Peter McLarty technically stopped teaching science in 2000. But the retired high school teacher continues to educate — only now it’s about the dangers of a massive steel-making plant in his Northern Ontario community.
McLarty, a member and vice chair of Clean North, an environmental advocacy organization in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, was unsurprised when, once again, a failure at the Algoma Steel plant led to pollution discharge into the St. Marys River.
“The only time the public pays attention is when pollution goes into the water,” McLarty told Environmental Health News (EHN). “The community wakes up, there’s media coverage but then it all dies off again.”
The smoke-belching mass of buildings, pipes, furnaces and flares sit on the banks of the St. Marys River, which holds economic, ecological and cultural importance for the two cities it bisects: Sault Sainte Marie in Ontario, Canada, and the city of the same name across the water in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The river is one of the most engineered in the United States. A series of locks — the “Soo Locks” — allow an ever-growing number of cargo-hauling freighters to travel from Lake Superior down the river to Lake Huron and beyond. But the re-shaping goes beyond past and current lock construction, in the form of planned and unplanned pollution.
Algoma Steel emissions in February 2024.
Credit: Brian Bienkowski/EHN
Photo courtesy of Peter McLarty
This pollution seeps into the water of the St. Marys River, affecting communities downstream, but also invades the air of neighboring communities in the form of benzene, particulate matter and other toxic compounds. Despite being authorized to emit higher levels of pollution than what’s usually allowed, the plant routinely violates these limits. Partly funded with taxpayers money, the company has promised it’ll phase out coal-based steelmaking by 2029. But until then, nearby communities — already struggling with elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses — will have to deal with air and water contamination.
Algoma Steel’s own modeling estimates they’ve sent thousands of tons of harmful compounds into the waterway over the last decade, with legal permission to do so. But it’s the unplanned spills and accidents that catch the public’s eye. The company has had two contractors die onsite in the past two years. In mid-February, a blast furnace explosion sent five employees to the hospital when they, along with 7 others, were burned with molten metal. Three weeks earlier, piping at the plant collapsed — contaminating the river even further.
These incidents came on the heels of a June 2022 oil spill at the plant, which sent roughly 2,000 liters of oil into the river, prompting a drinking water advisory from Algoma Public Health, the district health authority. The spill shut down shipping on the St. Marys River and caused the Echo Bay community, which is a few miles downriver of the plant, to shut down their water treatment plant for 18 days. Michigan also issued a health advisory for Sugar Island, which is in the St. Marys River downstream of the plant.
But the water isn't the only resource that’s been polluted. The plant has legal permission to emit more particulate matter pollution and the cancer-causing substance benzene than what’s allowed under law. They are also the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in Ontario, and the eleventh largest in all of Canada. EHN, along with The Narwhal, documented this cross-border pollution in 2020 — outlining the air and water pollution from the plant, coupled with higher than average cancer rates on both sides of the river.
“We’re hollering but nobody’s listening,” McLarty said.
Algoma Steel initially welcomed questions from EHN but once the questions were sent, they did not respond. However, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, which is charged with regulating Algoma Steel and has repeatedly allowed pollution exceedances, point to a massive overhaul at the plant that will retire its polluting coal-based coke-making, switching to an electric arc furnace system.
For McLarty and others concerned about their health, the switch can’t come fast enough.
Algoma Steel pictured in February 2024. For years the plant has legal permission to emit more particulate matter pollution and the cancer-causing substance benzene than what’s allowed under law.
Credit: Brian Bienkowski/EHN
View of Algoma Steel emissions from nearby neighborhoods. Pictured in 2020.
Credit: Christopher Katsarov Luna/EHN
On January 20, Algoma Steel reported a “collapse of structure supporting utilities piping” at their coke-making plant (coke is a key ingredient in steelmaking that involves heating coal to extremely high temperatures). The company was forced to shut down coke production for nearly three weeks after the accident.
As a result, an unknown amount of flushing liquor was released into the St. Marys River, Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, told EHN. Flushing liquor is used to cool coke oven gas, recover valuable chemicals and remove sticky and corrosive components created in the coke-making process, he said.
The main contaminants in flushing liquor are ammonia and phenols, Wheeler said. The Ministry hasn’t found any aquatic impacts yet, but is reviewing water samples taken.
The pipeline break, and 2022 oil spill as well as all the other accidents, are linked to the plant’s aging infrastructure, McLarty believes. “This incident could have happened anytime and can happen again because of [it],” he said.
These incidents come in addition to the tons of legal pollution that Algoma sends into the St. Marys River each year. In 2022 (the most recent year with available data), company modeling estimates it discharged more than five tons of zinc, 13 tons of ammonia, which is toxic to aquatic life; 211 pounds of lead, which is considered unsafe at any level in drinking water; 1.5 tons of manganese, which damages the nervous system at high level; and 109 tons of nitrate, which has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects when found in drinking water.
According to an EHN analysis of Algoma Steel’s annual modeling data, over the past decade the company has poured into the St. Marys River more than 430 tons of ammonia, nearly three tons of benzene, 4,600 pounds of lead, 18 tons of manganese, 2,367 tons of nitrates and 55 tons of zinc.
This is on top of the air pollution Algoma Steel spews from its stacks every year. In 2022, the company estimates it emitted more than six tons of benzene, more than 1,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide and more than 170 tons of particulate matter, along with other harmful air contaminants.
For some of these pollutants, like benzene, benzo(a)pyrene and particulate matter, the company has operated under a “site specific standard” — which allows the company to emit beyond legal limits. Wheeler said companies can get this type of permit when there are “limitations in technology or potential economic considerations.”
As a result, the plant has a pass to emit benzene and benzo(a)pyrene to nearby air five times and 400 times higher, respectively, than the province’s standard. This has led to situations where neighborhoods in Sault Sainte Marie, Canada, receive amounts of benzo(a)pyrene up to 324 times higher than air quality regulations, according to an investigation from the National Observer last year.
Although the plant’s standards expired in 2023, the Ministry is reviewing another round of requests from Algoma Steel, including a new requested site-specific standard for sulfur dioxide, Wheeler said.
While this process of giving a special permit to the company is public, a review of the last consultation found that residents raised concerns about how short the public comment period was and what health impacts the company’s ongoing pollution has in the community. McLarty also pointed out that Algoma Steel’s own environmental incident reports show “daily violations of regulations.”
Wheeler said the eventual electric arc furnace overhaul at the plant should remove the need for these air pollution exceedances.
“Algoma anticipates it will meet Ontario’s air standards at the completion of this transition,” he said, and added that the proposed plan “will significantly reduce benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, sulfur dioxide emissions, and other contaminants including greenhouse gases, and have a substantial positive impact on air quality in the local community.”
In the meantime, health problems plague the community.
The international bridge connecting Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, to the city of the same name in Canada. The St. Marys River is one of the most engineered rivers in the United States.
Credit: Christopher Katsarov Luna/EHN
While scientists can’t pin specific cancer cases on nearby pollution, benzene is a known carcinogen and benzo(a)pyrene is a probable carcinogen. Particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide have been linked to cancers as well. As EHN previously reported, the Sault Sainte Marie area has the highest age-standardized rate of cancer in Ontario and the highest provincial rates of lung and prostate cancer. The city’s P6C postal code — which is the western end of the city that borders Algoma Steel — has double the national rate of rare acute myeloid leukemia, and a 2019 study found “disease clusters” of the leukemia in four industrial border cities, including Sault Sainte Marie.
Algoma Public Health did not respond to questions specific to community concerns about the plant’s pollution. Rather, Dr. Jennifer Loo, medical officer of health for Algoma Public Health, pointed out that the agency “does not have a role in assessing compliance with or enforcing environmental regulations” and “continues to liaise with local partners who are monitoring this incident [the recent piping collapse], and we will issue any public health updates as necessary.”
Matthew Shoemaker, the mayor of Canada’s Sault Sainte Marie, told EHN he recognizes and understands “the concerns of community members about industrial pollution and the impacts on the environment and community members,” but that the city can’t take any regulatory action when there are spills or other environmental violations, as that falls to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
Algoma Steel has three published violations from the Ministry, according to Wheeler — a $75,000 fine in 2008 for discharging a phenol over allowed limits; a $125,000 fine in 2016 for neglecting to report a spill incident; and a $181,250 fine in 2023 for a 2019 discharge that exceeded allowable levels of phenol, cyanide and ammonia. They have yet to be fined for the 2022 oil spill.
Algoma Steel reported nearly $300 million in net income in the fiscal year 2023.
In 2021, the Canadian federal government announced Algoma Steel was awarded $420 million of federal funds to “green” its steelmaking process by retiring the polluting, aging coke ovens and switching to electric arc furnaces for steelmaking. It is part of an estimated $700 million makeover that will significantly reduce pollution at the plant.
The company estimates the switch, scheduled to begin this year, will cut the company's carbon emissions by about 70% and many of the harmful pollutants like benzene and particulate matter as well. Previous statements from the company suggest they expect to be completely off the current coal-fired furnaces by 2029.
When other coke-processors have shut down, there have been massive health benefits to nearby communities. For example, after Pittsburgh’s Shenango Coke Works shut down, weekly hospital visits among residents in neighborhoods surrounding the plant for heart-related problems decreased by 42%. Previous research found ER visits for asthma near the plant dropped 38% after it shut down.
McLarty is cautiously optimistic about the electric arc switch, but remains concerned as long as the coke ovens are in use and polluting the community.
“The problem all along is a lack of maintenance,” he said. “That’s how they end up having these disasters.”
CAMERON PARISH, La. — Late into the night, John Allaire watches the facility next to his home shoot 300-foot flares from stacks.
He lives within eyesight of southwest Louisiana’s salty shores, where, for decades, he’s witnessed nearly 200 feet of land between it and his property line disappear into the sea. Two-thirds of the land was rebuilt to aid the oil and gas industry’s LNG expansion. LNG — shorthand for liquified natural gas – is natural gas that's cooled to liquid form for easier storage or transport; it equates to 1/600th the volume of natural gas in a gaseous state. It’s used to generate electricity, or fuel stove tops and home heaters, and in industrial processes like manufacturing fertilizer.
In the U.S., at least 30 new LNG terminal facilities have been constructed or proposed since 2016, according to the Oil and Gas Watch project. Louisiana and Texas’ Gulf Coast, where five facilities are already operating, will host roughly two-thirds of the new LNG terminals – meaning at least 22 Gulf Coast LNG facilities are currently under construction, were recently approved to break ground or are under further regulatory review.
Although the U.S. didn’t ship LNG until 2016, when a freight tanker left, a few miles from where Cameron Parish’s LNG plants are today, last year the country became the global leader in LNG production and export volume, leapfrogging exporters like Qatar and Australia. The EIA’s most recent annual outlook estimated that between the current year and 2050, U.S. LNG exports will increase by 152%.
And it’s changed local economic estimates: last year, retired Louisiana State University professor Loren Scott’s economic forecast last year predicted an additional $36 billion in oil and gas industry spending will boost local employment by 7% over just two years.
Allaire, 68, watches how saltwater collects where rainwater once fed the area’s diminishing coastal wetlands. “We still come down here with the kids and set out the fishing rods. It's not as nice as it used to be,” he told Environmental Health News (EHN).
That intimacy with nature drew Allaire to the area when he purchased 311 acres in 1998. An environmental engineer and 30-year oil and gas industry veteran, he helped lead environmental assessments and manage clean-ups, and although retired, he still works part-time as an environmental consultant with major petroleum companies. With a lifetime of oil and gas industry expertise, he’s watched the industry's footprint spread across Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile shores and beyond. Now that the footprints are at the edge of his backyard, Allaire is among a cohort of organizers, residents and fisher-folk in the region mobilizing to stop LNG facility construction. For him, the industry’s expansion usurps the right-or-wrong ethics he carried across his consulting career. For anglers, oil and gas infrastructure has destroyed fishing grounds and prevented smaller vessels from accessing the seafood-rich waters of the Calcasieu River.
From the view of Allaire’s white pickup truck as he drives across his property to the ocean’s shore, he points to where a new LNG facility will replace marshlands. Commonwealth LNG intends to clear the land of trees and then backfill the remaining low-lying field.
“You see what’s happening with the environment,” Allaire said. “When the facts change, I got to change my mind about what we’re doing.”
John Allaire, left, purchased 311 acres in Cameron Parish in 1998, and has watched the oil and gas industry's footprint spread to his property.
Credit: John Allaire
During an Earth Day rally in April, community members gathered in the urban center of Lake Charles to demand local oil and gas industries help deliver a safer, healthier future for all. In between live acts by artists performing south Louisiana’s quintessential zydeco musical style, speakers like James Hiatt, a Calcasieu Parish native with ties to Cameron Parish and a Healthy Gulf organizer, and RISE St. James organizer Sharon Lavigne, who’s fighting against LNG development in rural Plaquemines Parish near the city of New Orleans, asked the nearly 100 in attendance to imagine a day in which the skyline isn’t dotted by oil and gas infrastructure.
Not long ago, it was hard to imagine an Earth Day rally in southwest Louisiana at all. For decades, the area has been decorated with fossil fuel infrastructure. Sunsets on some days are highlighted by the chemicals in the air; at night, thousands of facilities’ lights dot the dark sky.
“It takes a lot of balls for people to start speaking up,” Shreyas Vasudevan, a campaign researcher with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, told EHN in the days after the rally. In a region with its history and economy intertwined with oil and gas production, “you can get a lot of social criticism – or ostracization, as well – even threats to your life.”
Many are involved in local, regional and national advocacy groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Audubon Society.
But environmental organizers are fighting a multi-billion-dollar industry with federal and state winds at its back. And LNG’s federal support is coupled with existing state initiatives.
Under outgoing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — a term-limited Democrat — the state pledged a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Natural gas, which the LNG industry markets as a cleaner-burning alternative, is cited as one of the state’s solutions. Louisiana is the only state that produces a majority of its carbon emissions through fossil fuels refining industries, like LNG, rather than energy production or transportation. Governor Edwards’ office did not return EHN’s request for comment.
This accommodating attitude towards oil and gas industries has resulted in a workforce that’s trained to work in LNG refining facilities across much of the rural Gulf region, said Steven Miles, a lawyer at Baker Botts LLP and a fellow at the Baker Institute’s Center on Energy Studies. Simultaneously, anti-industrialization pushback is lacking. It’s good news for industries like LNG.
“The bad news,” Miles added. “[LNG facilities] are all being jammed in the same areas.”
One rallying cry for opponents is local health. The Environmental Integrity Project found that LNG export terminals emit chemicals like carbon monoxide –potentially deadly– and sulfur dioxide, of which the American Lung Association says long-term exposure can lead to heart disease, cancer, and damage to internal or female reproductive organs.
An analysis of emissions monitoring reports by the advocacy group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that Venture Global’s existing Calcasieu Pass facility had more than 2,000 permit violations.That includes exceeding the permit’s authorized air emissions limit to release nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds 286 out of its first 343 days of operation.
The Marvel Crane, the first liquid natural gas carrier to transport natural gas from the Southwest Louisiana LNG facility, transits a channel in Hackberry, Louisiana, May 28, 2019.
Credit: Coast Guard News
Rather than amend its infrastructure to meet regulatory standards, Venture Global is asking the state to raise its facility’s air emissions permit limits to release an additional 833% of greenhouses gasses each year, according to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s January report. If approved, permitted emissions would rise to roughly 4.65 million tons, making the facility the state’s fifth-largest emitter), according to a 2021 statewide greenhouse data inventory compiled by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies.
“This is just one facility,” at a time when three more facilities have been proposed in the region and state, Vasudevan said. Venture Global’s operational LNG facility — also known as Calcasieu Pass — “is much smaller than the other facility they’ve proposed.”
In an area that experienced 18 feet of storm surge during Hurricane Laura in 2020 — and just weeks later, struck by Hurricane Delta — Venture Global is planning to build a second export terminal Known as “CP2,” it’s the largest of the roughly two dozen proposed Gulf LNG export terminals, and a key focal point for the region’s local organizing effort.
Residents “don’t really want LNG as much as they want Cameron [Parish] from 1990 back,” Hiatt told EHN of locals’ nostalgia for a community before storms like Rita in 2005 brought up to 15 feet of storm surge, only for Laura to repeat the damage in 2020. Throughout that time, the parish’s population dipped from roughly 10,000 to 5,000. “But the wolf knocking at the door is LNG. Folks in Cameron think that's going to bring back community, bring back the schools, bring back this time before we had all these storms — when Cameron was pretty prosperous.”
“Clearly,” for the oil and gas industry, “the idea is to transform what was once the center of commercial fishing in Louisiana to gas exports,” Cindy Robertson, an environmental activist in southwest Louisiana, told EHN.
Helping fishers’ impacted by LNG is about “actual survival of this unique culture,” Cooke said.
In a measure of organizers’ success, she pointed to a recent permit hearing for Venture Global’s CP2 proposal. Regionally, it’s the only project that’s received an environmental permit, but not its export permit, which remains under federal review. At the meeting, some spoke on the company’s behalf. As an organizer, it was a moment of clarity, Cooke explained. Venture Global officials “had obviously done a lot of coaching and organizing and getting people together in Cameron to speak out on their behalf,” Cooke said. “So, in a way, that was bad. But in another way, it shows that we really had an impact.”
“It also shows that we have a lot to do,” Cooke added.
Environmental organizers like Alyssa Portaro describe a sense of fortitude among activists — she and her husband to the region’s nearby town of Vinton near the Texas-Louisiana border. Since the families’ relocation to their farm, Portaro has worked with Cameron Parish fisher-folk.
“I’ve not witnessed ‘community’ anywhere like there is in Louisiana,” Portaro told EHN. But a New Jersey native, she understands the toll environmental pollution has on low-income communities. “This environment, it’s so at risk — and it’s currently getting sacrificed to big industries.”
“People don’t know what we’d do without oil and gas. It comes at a big price,” she added.
Southwest Louisiana’s Cameron Parish is one of the state’s most rural localities. Marine economies were the area’s economic drivers until natural disasters and LNG facilities began pushing locals out, commercial fishers claim.
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
Residents “don’t really want LNG as much as they want Cameron [Parish] from 1990 back,” James Hiatt , a Healthy Gulf organizer, told EHN. "But the wolf knocking at the door is LNG."
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
For the most part, Cameron Parish’s life and economy has historically taken place at sea. As new LNG facilities are operational or in planning locally, locals claim the community they once knew is nearly unrecognizable.
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
The stakes are seemingly higher for a region like southwest Louisiana, which is the epicenter of climate change impacts.
In nearly a century, the state has lost roughly 2,000 square miles of land to coastal erosion. In part driving the state’s erosion crisis is the compounding impacts of Mississippi River infrastructure and oil and gas industry activity, such as dredging canals for shipping purposes, according to a March study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority said Cameron Parish could lose more land than other coastal parishes over the next 50 years. A recent Climate Central report says the parish will be underwater within that time frame.
On top of erosion and sea level rise impacts, in August, 2023, marshland across southwest Louisiana’s Cameron Parish burned. The fires were among at least 600 across the Bayou State this year. Statewide, roughly 60,000 acres burned — a more than six-fold increase of the state’s average acres burned per year in the past decade alone.
But while the blaze avoided coastal Louisiana communities like Cameron Parish, the fires represented a warning coming from a growing chorus of locals across the region — one that’s echoes by the local commercial fishing population, who claimed to have experienced unusually low yields during the same time, according to a statement from a local environmental group. At the site of the Cameron Parish fires are locations for two proposed LNG expansion projects.
It was an unusual occurrence for an area that’s more often itself underwater this time of year due to a storm surge from powerful storms. For LNG expansion’s local opposition, it was a red flag.
As the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has noted prior, the confluence of climate change’s raising of sea levels and the construction of LNG export terminals — some are proposed at the size of nearly 700 football fields — are wiping away the marshland folks like Allaire watched wither. Among their fears is that the future facilities won’t be able to withstand the power of another storm like Laura and its storm surge, which wiped away entire communities in 2020.
Amidst these regional climate impacts, LNG infrastructure has shown potential to exacerbate the accumulation of greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. For the most part, LNG is made up of methane — a greenhouse gas that’s more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Among the 22 current LNG facility proposals, the advocacy group Sierra Club described a combined climate pollution output that would roughly equal to that of about 440 coal plants.
The climate impacts prompt some of the LNG industry’s uncertainty going forward. It isn’t clear if Asian countries, key importers of U.S. LNG, will “embrace these energy transition issues,” said David Dismuke, an energy consultant and the former executive director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies. Likewise, European nations remain skeptical of embracing LNG as a future staple fuel source.
“They really don't want to have to pull the trigger,” Dismukes added, referring to Europe’s hesitation to commit more resources to exporting LNG from the American market. “They don't want to go down that road.”
While there will be a tapering down of natural gas supply, Miles explained, “we’re going to need natural gas for a long time,” as larger battery storage for renewables is still unavailable.
“I'm not one of these futurists that can tell you where we're going to be, but I just don't see everything being extreme,” Dismukes said. “I don't see what we've already built getting stranded and going away, either.”
For now, LNG seems here to stay. From 2012 to 2022,U.S. natural gas demand — the sum of both domestic consumption and gross exports — rose by a whopping 43%, reported the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA. Meanwhile, in oil and gas hotbeds like Louisiana and Texas, natural gas demand grew by 116%.
Throughout 25 years, Allaire has witnessed southwest Louisiana’s land slowly fade, in part driven by the same industrial spread regionally. Near where the front door of his travel trailer sits underneath the aluminum awning, he points to a chenier ridge located near the end of the property. It’s disappearing, he said.
“See the sand washing over, in here?” Allaire says, as he points towards the stretches of his property. “This pond used to go down for a half mile. This is all that's left of it on this side.”
Some funding for this reporting was also provided by the Wake Forest University Environmental and Epistemic Justice Initiative.
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