(Reuters) - Irving Oil’s refinery in the Canadian province of New Brunswick spewed an excessive amount of ash-like catalyst into the surrounding city of Saint John at least a dozen times since 2010 as regulators launched and later abandoned a study of its health impacts, according to filings reviewed by Reuters.
The previously unreported documents from Irving and provincial regulators, obtained by Reuters under the province’s Right to Information Act, raise fresh questions over the company’s environmental record and the province’s capacity to regulate industry.
Such concerns have come into sharper relief since the company agreed in 2013 to become a partner in TransCanada’s proposed Energy East oil pipeline project, which would bring more than 1 million barrels of oil daily from Alberta to the Saint John shoreline in eastern Canada.
The problems at the refinery, Canada’s largest, underscore concerns over catalyst releases at refineries around North America. Incidents in Texas, Wyoming, and California, for example, have heightened calls for a better understanding of how the concoction of sand and metal compounds, used in the production of gasoline, affects human health.
Between August 2010 and December 2015, privately held Irving’s refinery had repeated operational problems that triggered the releases of the substance, according to monthly reports submitted by Irving to provincial regulators.
The incidents sometimes left surrounding homes, vehicles and backyards coated by the gritty dust, prolonged exposure to which has been linked by the company and health experts to potential lung damage.
Irving Oil spokesman Andrew Carson said the catalyst releases were “unplanned and infrequent” and noted the refinery had not exceeded its annual overall particulate emissions limit during the more than five years examined by Reuters.
”An event like a catalyst release is responded to quickly with very minimal environmental impact,” Carson said.
But during the period, large particulate emissions from the refinery exceeded the two-month rolling average threshold established in Irving’s operating permit at least a dozen times, according to the documents. The company told regulators it fielded as many as 183 complaint calls from neighbors.
The New Brunswick Department of Health had launched an effort to study the substance after a particularly large release in 2013, but the work was delayed and finally canceled two years later because of a lack of time and data, according to agency emails included in the documents.
Reuters submitted a list of questions to the New Brunswick Department of Health in early May, but officials there did not respond to that or to repeated requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for the New Brunswick Department of Environment and Local Government said: “The department continues to work with the company to ensure that it is taking the necessary steps to operate within its approval limits and to minimize environmental impacts.”
Provinces, rather than the federal government, are responsible for dealing with most local pollution issues in Canada.
The biggest release happened in August 2010, when a mechanical glitch during the start up of a refinery unit caused it to shoot more than 30 metric tons (33 tons) of dust into the air. Irving assured regulators problems were being resolved, but releases persisted, the documents show.
Irving’s safety data sheets for the catalyst caution against ingestion, and warn of the potential for lung damage if inhaled. Several components are believed to be carcinogens, according to information submitted by Irving to New Brunswick regulators.
Irving spokesman Carson said such impacts would require frequent and prolonged exposure, and compared the danger of catalyst to that of household paints.
Health officials began raising questions after an accident that resulted in the release of between 6 and 11 metric tons of catalyst in 2013, emails between provincial health and environmental officials show.
“Has Irving ever tested soil after an event like this? It sounds like this has happened before, but little was done other than vouchers for free car washes,” wrote Douglas Walker, the regional health director for Saint John in a July 9, 2013 email to New Brunswick environmental officials.
At a meeting called by regulators shortly after the incident, Irving agreed to advise residents to wash “fruits and vegetables, children’s toys, etc,” but reassured regulators the substance was “benign,” according to minutes from the session.
Some community members and air quality watchdogs remain unconvinced. Dr. Barbara Mackinnon, president of the New Brunswick Lung Association, said particulate emissions can affect different people in different ways. “To say that it is benign is just not entirely accurate,” she said.
In July 2013, New Brunswick Department of Health officials proposed a “health risk assessment” of catalyst to put concerns of residents and others to rest, but the study was abandoned in 2015, according to agency emails and meeting minutes.
“In spite of investing a fair bit of effort, we have been unable to complete this work because of a lack of data that would enable us to define realistic human exposure scenarios,” Todd Arsenault, a senior scientific advisor to the Department of Health, wrote in an email on May 15, 2015.
An Irving spokesman said the company later undertook its own voluntary study which showed “very little cause for concern associated with incidents of this scale.” Irving declined to provide a copy to Reuters.
A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health in 2011 of a large catalyst release in Wyoming more than a decade earlier concluded that breathing the catalyst likely did not harm health long-term, but could have worsened problems like asthma and bronchitis. It noted that the study was based on modeling with “inherent uncertainties”.
Complicating things, different refineries can use different ingredients in their catalyst blends.
Some local environmentalists and refinery neighbors in Saint John said lingering questions had left some feeling unnerved ahead of larger infrastructure projects associated with Transcanada’s Energy East proposal.
“Regulators here seem content to take the word of industry,” said Gordon Dalzell, an air quality activist who lives near the refinery. “If the new pipeline is built, who can we trust to watch out for the public interest?”
Environmental fears over the Energy East project have mainly focused on the risk of spills, but local critics have also raised concerns about air quality around the project’s planned storage terminal, which Irving would operate.
Air quality is a touchy issue in Saint John, which is dominated by Irving-owned industries. Research commissioned by the Conservation Council of New Brunswick in 2009 showed lung cancer rates in the city 50 percent higher than in the capital Fredericton, though the research was unable to identify a cause.
Reuters has revealed other concerns around Irving Oil’s environmental record in recent years, including problems with its air pollution capture equipment, and its record of spills and regulatory warnings.
Additional reporting and editing by Richard Valdmanis. Editing by Stuart Grudgings