Joanne Boutet, 65, grew up in Quebec City’s Limoilou waterfront and says she had asthma as a child. Pretty much everyone in her class did. But when her family moved to Charlesbourg, a more affluent northern part of the city, she recalls being one of the few with respiratory problems.
When Ms Boutet returned as an adult, eczema spread to her face and she suffered a severe asthma attack that took her to the hospital. “The first question the doctor asked me was if I lived in Limoilou,” she recalls. “When I told her I grew up there, she was convinced there was a connection.”
Limoilou is adjacent to Quebec International Port, where mined nickel is shipped, and there are growing concerns among health experts that airborne particles could affect the health of local residents.
Provincial government statistics show atmospheric nickel values in Limoilou higher than average. Between 2018 and 2021, the neighborhood exceeded the province’s nickel standard by 50 times, rising to more than 14 times the maximum Limit at least three times in the last year.
And a government-funded study found that people in working-class neighborhoods were 1.3 times more likely to have asthma than those further up in Quebec City’s Haute-Ville neighborhood. They are also 1.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illnesses.
However, concerns about the potential impact of nickel production on people’s health collide with the industry’s reluctance to contribute to poor air quality and the provincial government’s aspiration to lead the way in providing mineral resources for a green economy. Nickel is a key component in batteries, especially for electric cars, and both federal and state governments are helping companies increase mineral production.
Local residents suspected there might be problems, but awareness of contaminated air surged into public consciousness in 2012 when a plume of red dust emanating from the international port blanketed Limoilou. The dust turned out to be from a pile of uncovered blood iron that blew in from the harbor.
Eventually, a class action lawsuit was initiated and taken to court, where a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that residents who found their homes covered in red dust would be compensated for clean-up efforts and damage.
Véronique Lalande, who filed the class action lawsuit, has also suffered from neurodermatitis and increased allergy symptoms since moving to the neighborhood a few years ago. One day in 2012, she noticed the dust on her balcony and on her newborn’s hands. “I realized his face was red and he had put something in his mouth, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
Through dust sampling and research into air quality reports, she learned that Limoilou has, on average, the highest atmospheric nickel values in Canada.
“It really shook people up,” said Ms. Lalande, who also heads a citizen activist group focused on air quality in Limoilou.
Nickel, a naturally occurring metal found in rock deposits, is not considered dangerous except for those with allergies – the World Health Organization estimates that around 2 percent of men and 11 percent of women have a skin reaction to nickel. Ms. Lalande is one of them.
Nickel can be carcinogenic when ingested through the air. “These smaller pieces will go deep into the airways, they can get into your blood,” Ms Lalande said. She was dubbed the Erin Brockovich of Limoilou. “There’s absolutely nothing normal about that.”
Nickel is used in thousands of everyday products, from Canadian five cents to jewelry, but interest in nickel has surged due to its use in electric car batteries. In its 2022 budget, the federal government announced it was prepared to spend nearly $4 billion to fund the minerals industry, including nickel, critical to electric cars.
In Quebec, the largest nickel mine is owned by Glencore, a Swiss-owned multinational. It has operated out of Raglan, near the northern tip of the province, since 1997 and, according to the company, produces 240,000 tons of raw material annually. Glencore also calls Raglan “one of the world’s purest series of nickel deposits”.
From Raglan, Glencore transports nickel on its ship to the Port of Quebec, where it is unloaded into a sealed storage dome before being transferred to rail cars to a smelter in Sudbury. It is partially refined in the smelter and then returned to the port by rail. From there it is loaded onto another ship bound for a refinery in Norway to be sold as pure nickel.
Maurice Moreau, Glencore Canada’s manager of environmental management systems for Ontario and Quebec, at the Glencore facility at the Port of Quebec in Limoilou. He blames others for poor air quality, including wood-burning stoves, the city’s incinerator, and car pollution.
During a tour of the port, Glencore’s head of environmental systems management for Quebec and Ontario said the company was not responsible for airborne nickel at Limoilou. “Nickel is of great value to us. That’s where we make our profit. We don’t want to lose a nickel to the air,” Moe Moreau said.
Mr Moreau said Glencore, which reported record profits of $18.9 billion in the first half of 2022, has spent $60 million over the past decade to improve its atmospheric nickel deposition mechanisms. Some of these improvements include updating the unloading engine to allow it to operate on a route to save 36 hours less unloading time when the ship is open and nickel is exposed to the air. Glencore also added sealed doors instead of flaps to the building where the railcars are loaded, and installed dry fog machines to spray the nickel onto the ship and turn stray dust into water molecules that fall back onto the pile.
Glencore, which was simultaneously involved in an air quality controversy over its Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Que. which has emitted high levels of arsenic for decades, leading to increased rates of lung cancer, will not release air quality statistics recorded at the port. Mr Moreau says, “The nickel doesn’t come from the mining industry.” He blames Limoilou’s wood-burning stoves, the salt that piles up after snow clearing, the city’s incinerator, the paper mill and car pollution.
In 2013, a study by the Quebec Department of the Environment concluded that it is “very unlikely” that nickel in Limoilou’s air came from sources other than the port. It was also found that the nickel contained an iron sulfide called pentlandite – a potentially more dangerous form of the metal. In Western Australia, where pentlandite is found, standards are much stricter than in Canada.
“We’re talking about apples and bananas here,” said Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, who heads the Quebec section of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (AQME). “The nickel that we find in Europe and Ontario is relatively harmless, I mean it can cause breathing problems, but it’s not as carcinogenic as others. The one we have in Quebec is the one most likely to cause cancer when exposed to high levels of long-term exposure.”
A petition signed by 18 Quebec health officials, including AQME, called on the government to look more closely at the impact of atmospheric nickel and reverse its February decision to relax the province’s nickel standard — a move for which Glencore has been committed to since 2013.
“We have an industry that doesn’t pay the price for what pollutes it. They literally ask for more, and the government says yes, and then who suffers? The people in the city are least heard,” said Pétrin-Desrosiers.
In an email, Quebec’s environment ministry defended its decision, citing a 2018 report prepared by Michèle Bouchard, chair of toxicological risk analysis and management at the University of Montreal.
“The application of an annual standard … prevents associated critical respiratory effects with repeated exposure to nickel and protects against the carcinogenic effects of all nickel compounds, including nickel sulphides.”
Speaking to reporters in February, Quebec Minister of the Environment Benoit Charette said the decision to relax nickel air quality standards was made in response to increased demand for car batteries for electric vehicles. “I have a very clear mandate to tackle climate change and significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We need to electrify our transport, and for that we need nickel.”
In Limoilou there is a mural of a person wearing a gas mask standing with an umbrella amid images of skulls and bones, bombs and lightning. The artwork was created with the participation of more than 100 local residents to show the community’s frustration.
“We don’t want Limoilou to be a victim zone anymore,” said Raymond Poirier, president of the Vieux-Limoilou volunteer council. “In French we say ‘souvent pas dans ma cour’ (not in my backyard), but the feeling is that it’s always in our backyard.”
Ms. Lalande left the neighborhood in 2016 for a house in the mountains where she lives on the corner of a street called Bon Air (good air). Back in Limoilou, where she still works, Ms. Lalande shows the park where she used to take her children. “It’s really still very emotional because I didn’t choose to go,” she said.
As Limoilou awaits several air quality studies from the government, including a report from an independent task force due to arrive by the end of the year, she says the aim isn’t to move Glencore or the port out of the area. “We can be richer collectively through our resources, but they can do it right by protecting the population,” she said.
When that happens, she hopes to be able to return to her beloved Limoilou.
“I think it’s a matter of time,” she said.