The Stench of Greed

April 26, 2020

More than 3,500 pages of environmental reports have been made public through yet another Freedom of Information (FOI) request with the Ministry of Environment that delves into the inner workings of the Co-op Refinery.

The FOI request was submitted on February 4th, 2020 with the Government of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment. The request was seeking a variety of records that pertained to the Co-op Refinery, including: Stack Emission Testing Results 2015-2020, Air Emission Quality Results 2015-2020, most recent Risk Assessment or Exposure Pathway Assessment for temporary camps set up between the landfill and refinery and most recent Permit to Operate.

The Ministry responded on April 13th, 2020, with a trove of documents to sift through. The 18 separate, lengthy reports contained minimal redaction and plenty of insight into the Co-op Refinery’s environmental record. Included in the documents, it shows the Exposure Pathway Assessment that was completed for the Co-op’s scab camp, as well as many of the exceedances and several years worth of environmental reports.

It may seem counterintuitive to release reports that show some of the failures and shortcomings of the Co-op Refinery, but it reiterates the importance of why our members are fighting so hard for pension security. The ability to enjoy a comfortable retirement, after a career of work in a risky and dangerous environment, is invaluable.

Those that work at the Refinery know exactly the dangers, and potential exposures, that exist but it can be difficult to quantify with concrete numbers. As workers, we strive to maintain the plant to the best of our ability, but with limited maintenance funding and FCL clenching the purse strings tighter and tighter every year, oftentimes many important issues are overlooked.

In regards to the scab camp construction, it is appalling to see just how little was assessed in regards to what impact the proximity to operating process units would have on their “valued employees”. The Exposure Pathway Assessment left out the most critical part of what would be affecting employees, the air they breathe. Shockingly, somehow the study only focused on groundwater and soil sampling as if that would somehow be relevant. It seems to be a blatant and poor attempt to simply check the box that an assessment was completed, all while suspiciously ignoring many of the actual risks. No sane person would build their home next to a bunch of furnace stacks puking noxious chemicals and then find it acceptable to only test the dirt, and not the air they breathe.

The Co-op Refinery appears to rely on the flimsy excuse that since the trailers are raised off the ground with blocking that none of the air quality concerns matter. They seemingly ignore the air intakes for the trailer ventilation systems or the simple fact that not every gas immediately drops to the ground and dissipates.

Amec Foster Wheeler, the company tasked with preparing the report, admits that a large majority of the information and data used to draw its conclusions was provided by the Co-op Refinery itself. Once again, a case of the Co-op investigating themselves and finding themselves to have done nothing wrong.

The environmental reports show a clear and alarming trend of the releases that occur. It is easy to see why the locked-out employees are concerned about the safety of the community as a whole.

This trend is undoubtedly ongoing during the lockout and likely much worse. Several emissions incidents from various catalyst, sulphur, and flare stacks have been witnessed and captured on video in the last five months. The likes of which have never been seen before by veteran employees with over 20 years of experience. The refinery is a large, intricate operation and the longer the lockout continues the more the risks to public safety continue to grow. Unfortunately, the true impact of these incidents will undoubtedly be covered up as many managers still inside fear for their jobs if they speak out about anything.

Before the lockout, workers were very concerned about the Co-op’s decision to extend annual shutdown maintenance to a three-year rotating cycle. This would mean that critical repairs and preventative maintenance of process equipment would occur every three years rather than every year as it was in the past. There is a real fear that the refinery integrity has been on a steady decline as money is funnelled into other projects instead of the viability of the safe operation.

It is difficult to paint a picture of the noxious environment present directly at the refinery, but outside sources can reveal a better picture. The Co-op Refinery are required by law to maintain air monitoring stations to capture and record emissions data. The two primary stations are located northwest and southeast of the Refinery. Unfortunately, they only cover two small areas and don’t provide information about how refinery emissions affect the city as a whole. In 2018, there were 175 recorded exceedances that were registered at those two air monitoring stations several hundred meters away from the refinery. This would mean that nearly every second day the Co-op Refinery was guilty of emitting noxious chemicals into the surrounding community.

It is not insignificant the amount of H2S required to register an exceedance on a monitoring station located that far outside the plant. The concentration needed to do that is obviously significantly higher at the source and the only way it can reach those monitors is if the wind is blowing in the correct direction at the correct speed. This only takes into account H2S. Other atmospheric poisons like benzene, toluene, catalyst, asbestos, freon, SO2, or the other myriad of chemicals we may encounter at the refinery are not accounted for at these stations.

A short study over the course of 3 months examined the H2S emissions levels that were detected along the fencelines at the periphery of the plant. Once again this only takes into account H2S and not any of the other harmful gases prevalent at the refinery. The results of the study were quite concerning. Showing just how often operators are exposed to levels that would cause headaches and dizziness if they were standing at the fenceline; far away from the units where they are actually exposed to much higher concentrations.

The reports contained in the FOI give the public a glimpse into the working conditions that employees are exposed to every day. It is a risk in itself just to breathe the refinery air, but we do it to provide a future for our families and a comfortable retirement. It’s clear why the union sees pension security as a fair ask after a career of loyal work in risky conditions for a very profitable employer. Respect for refinery workers means appreciating the dangers of our job and the value we bring to keeping the refinery, and community, safe on a daily basis.

To read the Environmental FOI in its entirety please click here

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