Tuesday, March 6, 2018

No Social License for Coniston Ferrochrome Smelter

City officials dropped a bombshell on the community of Coniston earlier this month when, through a press release, Mayor Brian Bigger announced that Greater Sudbury had selected the small community as the preferred location for Noront Resources’ ferrochrome smelter (see: “Sudbury finalizes bid for ferrochrome smelter,” the Sudbury Star, February 2, 2018).  Almost immediately, officials were scrambling to provide information to stunned Conistonians.  Councillor Deb McIntosh, whose ward includes Coniston, hastily arranged a public meeting for the following week (see: “Councillor addressing concerns over Coniston smelter pitch,” CBC News, February 8, 2018).  Mayor Bigger, fresh from his tour of the Outokumpu ferrochrome facility in Finland, did the rounds with local media to assure the public that there is nothing to worry about when it comes to ferrochrome (see: “Sudbury Accent: No 'weakness' in city's bid,” the Sudbury Star, February 3, 2018, and “Coniston pushed as ‘optimal site’ in city’s bid to host ferrochrome smelter,” Sudbury dot com, February 1, 2018).

It all looked and sounded like damage control.

Almost overnight, Conistonians, fearful of the impacts that a new smelter will have on their community, were provoked into action.  A website was registered – www.saveconiston.ca – and content about the potentially harmful effects of chromite processing was being shared around the community via social media.

At the public meeting – the first where the City shared information directly with the impacted community – residents were demanding answers about chemical reactions and impacts related to trivalent and hexavalent chromium emissions.  They also wanted to know how their community could have been selected by the City as the site for a massive new piece of industrial infrastructure without anyone from the City first asking residents for their opinions.  Residents didn’t trust the answers they received from municipal officials about industrial processes and the production of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium.  And no answers at all were offered with regards to a lack of public consultation and community engagement.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course.  But this Council has developed a nasty habit of making decisions first, and consulting with the public later.

Outukumpu works - near Tornio, Finland

The good news for Conistonians opposed to the project may be that Noront hasn’t yet made a decision regarding which northern municipality will play host to Ontario’s first ferrochrome production facility. Greater Sudbury, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay are all angling for Noront’s prize: 350 full-time jobs and a $1 billion facility that will see chromite ore from the Ring of Fire turned into ferrochrome, an important product used to make stainless steel.

Partnerships between governments and business interests that exclude citizen participation and engagement in decision-making processes are the old way of doing business. Today, citizens everywhere are finding their voices and are demanding active involvement in decision-making.  And citizens are telling decision makers that they have the right to withhold their consent from development projects that threaten the health and well-being of their communities and the natural environment. It’s called a Social License – and while there is no legal requirement for decision-makers to obtain community consent, neglecting to do so can lead to delay and project abandonment as we have seen with natural gas and bitumen pipeline proposals elsewhere in Canada (see: “How social licence came to dominate the pipeline debate in Canada,” Laura Kane, the National Observer, May 21, 2016).

As it stands now, with local opposition forming in reaction to citizens being kept in the dark by the City, there is no social license from the Coniston community to support Greater Sudbury’s bid.  Conistonians are telling Noront that a smelter is not wanted here, and pursuit of the facility will be opposed vigorously.

Had the City made an effort to involve residents in the site selection process prior to submitting a bid, City officials could have worked together with residents and other stakeholders towards building a favorable consensus for the project – something that Noront would surely count in Greater Sudbury’s favour. Instead, by keeping everyone in the dark, an opportunity to do business differently was lost – and ultimately the City’s selection by Noront to host a new ferrochrome smelter might be lost along with it.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

This post originally appeared in the Sudbury Star, as "May: No social license for Coniston smelter" online and in print, February 24, 2018 - without hyperlinks.

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