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It's up to the people to decide future of Rouyn-Noranda smelter, Legault says

The Glencore-owned Horne smelter has become a political football on the election trail for Coalition Avenir Québec leader.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault, right, and Rouyn-Noranda—Temiscamingue candidate André Bernard, centre, visit a factory in Rouyn-Noranda on Thursday.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault, right, and Rouyn-Noranda—Temiscamingue candidate André Bernard, centre, visit a factory in Rouyn-Noranda on Thursday. Photo by Patrice Bergeron /The Canadian Press

ROUYN-NORANDA — While not excluding a referendum to decide the fate of a controversial copper smelter here linked to arsenic emissions, François Legault said ultimately it will up to the people to decide the way forward.

“There will be a decision to make,” Legault said standing a few blocks away from the Horne copper smelter, which dominates the landscape of his city of 42,000. “There are two scenarios.

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“One is a plan that is acceptable to the population, that respects health, that respects the environment. On the other side is the closing of the plant. If we go that way, we have to examine the impact because this (smelter) represents lots of well-paid jobs.

“But obviously this can’t go on forever because right now citizens are torn. There are families with members who work in the Horne smelter and they have a different view from certain groups such as doctors. If the majority of the population wants to close the plant, we will close the plant. I can’t be clearer.”

Located in the heart of Rouyn-Noranda, the future of the Glencore-owned smelter, which employs 650 people, made headlines following revelations about the level of arsenic in the air around the plant and the potential harmful effects on citizens.

Under a deal signed by the previous Liberal government, the smelter is allowed to emit 100 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air — 33 times the provincial standard — in its operations.

But Quebec’s minister of the environment, Benoit Charette, has announced that the 15-nanogram cap recommended by public health would be the new goal the company must reach with five years. The provincial norm is three nanograms.

For many people here, the action is insufficient.

The smelter is in a riding currently held by Québec solidaire MNA Êmilise Lessard-Therrien, while Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec’s candidate is Daniel Bernard, a former Liberal MNA and now a Rouyn-Noranda municipal councillor. The whole situation has the makings of a political drama.

Legault walked right into the thick of the debate Thursday.

At his news conference following a meeting with Rouyn-Noranda city council and local mayors, protestors representing Mères au front Noranda stood nearby in silence with a banner that read: “Our lives are worth more than their profits.”

“We asked for three minutes of his (Legault’s) time and he refused,” group spokesperson Émilie Robert said. “What we want is 15 nanograms right now as public health mentioned, not in five years. We think it’s possible to do it. Otherwise, we are sacrificing our children.”

She said the only person using a possible closure of the plant as a “scare tactic” is Legault, because Glencore does not talk this way.

The group grew bigger later, turning up at the restaurant where Legault and his team were eating lunch with supporters. This time a local doctor joined in. Earlier this week, three Rouyn-Noranda doctors published an open letter saying Legault’s recent statement on Tout le monde en parle minimizing the risks was not responsible.

Dr. Frédéric Bonin, a local emergency doctor and member of the Initiative médicale pour une action contre la toxicité, told reporters the government is not showing enough leadership in what is really a health issue. Saying it is up to the people doesn’t cut it, Bonin said.

“A citizen from Rouyn-Noranda is worth as much as a citizen from elsewhere in Quebec,” Bonin told reporters.

Legault also tangled on the air with the host of the local Radio-Canada morning show Des matins en or after host David Cabot challenged his interpretation of a recent public health report into the arsenic level in the air.

Legault grew irritated when Chabot said public health said the 15-nanogram limit is “safer.” Legault corrected him and saying the public health report uses the words “safe” and “minimum risk.”

Asked later if he would want to live in an area with 15 nanograms of arsenic, Legault said yes.

“Personally this would satisfy me,” Legault said. “On the other hand, it’s not up to me to make the decision.”

Legault added the government is ready to work with Glencore to see how far it is willing to move in the future over levels and promised local officials would be consulted on the kind of consultation process to be launched.

He did not rule out a referendum on the matter.

“I rule out nothing,” Legault said.

Another issue not settled is the kind of compensation to be offered should citizens be asked to move further from the plant.

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