The following Letter to the Editor by Peter Chow was originally submitted to the Sault Star. The letter was rejected by their editorial board. Since then, Chow has shared his opinions and letter on social media.
Sault Ste Marie desperately needs the jobs that the proposed Noront Resources ferrochrome production facility would bring but we need to be vigilant that this does not come at the expense of the health of our people and our environment.
Hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) is the inevitable byproduct of chromium manufacturing. It is a known genotoxic carcinogen, potentially causing cancers of the lung and upper respiratory tract through inhalation and gastrointestinal cancers through ingestion of contaminated water. As well there are a myriad of other serious health problems related to hexavalent chromium exposure.
Hexavalent chromium gained widespread notoriety through the movie “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts. The movie documented the true story of a law clerk who spearheaded a class-action lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) over the devastating health effects of hexavalent chromium on the town of Hinkley, California. In 1996 PG&E settled for $333 million, the largest settlement for a direct-action lawsuit in history. PG&E settled the last of the cases involved with the Hinkley claim in 2008.
PG&E began offering to buy up homes in Hinkley in 2010. Many residents took the offer and left town and their homes were promptly bulldozed by PG&E. By 2016 according to the New York Times, Hinkley, California had became a toxic ghost town, its groundwater and soil contaminated by hexavalent chromium. The population dwindled to the point that the last elementary school in the town closed in 2013.
Hexavalent chromium persists to this day in the soil, groundwater and drinking water in Hinkley. PG&E estimates it will take 50 years for the contamination to be cleaned up. For many years PG&E supplied bottled drinking water to all residents in the affected zone. Today many areas not only in California but all across the US have levels of hexavalent chromium in their water that exceed recommended guidelines. In fact an interactive map of hexavalent chromium contamination across the US shows that tap water in Chippewa County, across our International Bridge, has tested for unhealthy levels.
Noront Resources promises that this proposed ferrochrome production facility will have the capability to capture and remove its hexavalent chromium. We need to come to better understand how that will work and the risks associated with the process. We will need a rigorous environmental assessment to ensure that hexavalent chromium will not contaminate our environment, our groundwater and our drinking water. We have to be fully informed and diligent about the issue to ensure that Sault Ste Marie does not become another Hinkley (or Sarnia, Ontario, but that is another story).
-Dr. Peter Chow