In late March the smell of burnt coal hovered over east Hamilton’s Crown Point neighbourhood, not far from the steel plants along Lake Ontario. 

A March 25 article in the Hamilton Spectator reported that a temperature inversion (two layers of air, warm on top of cool) was keeping pollutants in a holding pattern that posed a “moderate health risk” to residents with heart or breathing problems. If a situation like this lasts more than six hours, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks can contact the local steel companies and request a voluntary cutback of emissions, which it did in this case. The last time the ministry requested that was in 2012. 

The strangely sweet odour reminded resident Kat Bezner of her childhood in coal-rich Silesia, in Poland. Kat and her partner Jochen Bezner belong to the Citizens Against Pollution and they regularly attend the steel companies’ community liaison committee (CLC) meetings. 

Stelco, ArcelorMittal Dofasco and Rain Carbon all have CLCs. The meetings are taking place virtually for now, but in non-pandemic times they involve concerned residents sitting in a small room alongside representatives from the company, the ministry, and organizations like the Hamilton Board of Health, the Hamilton Port Authority and the Hamilton Conservation Authority, to hear about any progress the company has made in meeting provincial air-quality standards, among other things. 

CLCs are open to anyone, and a few interested folks like myself and my partner do attend regularly to voice our concerns. But they generally don’t draw a large crowd. The information from the steel companies can be excruciatingly technical, although it’s not impossible to follow after a while. Sometimes, a Spectator reporter drifts in to take notes, but that is also rare. 

The issues require someone with enough time, commitment and encyclopedic knowledge of steelmaking to stay on top of industry developments. Kat and Jochen Bezner fit that bill. So does Lynda Lukasik, Environment Hamilton’s high-profile and energetic executive director. 

One of Environment Hamilton’s initiatives is StackWatch, which encourages residents to contact the ministry about problematic emissions from the steel mills. StackWatch started in 2003, but emissions, pollutants and bad smells hanging around are not a new story for a more than a century-old steel town like Hamilton. 

Lukasik herself is a multi-generation Hamiltonian with steelworker roots. She never met her grandfather on her mother’s side of the family. He worked for Stelco but died when Lukasik’s mother was still in her early 20s. Lukasik has often wondered if occupational exposure played a role. “You think about decades and decades of high exposure to contaminants, especially for people living in the neighbourhoods close to the mills,” she says. “And the interesting thing is when you think about Hamilton, that’s something we don’t really talk about.” 

Today, a more automated steel sector employs fewer people but the problem of industrial pollution is still present. Hamilton’s media have reported on periodic emissions or flares from steel company stacks and Environment Canada air-quality alerts for the city. 

Sometimes the wider issues are reported on too. “A couple of years ago the Toronto Star did a big investigative piece looking at the province’s failure to penalize polluters but to happily give them economic development grants,” points out Lukasik. 

On April 26, one month after that temperature inversion created moderately risky air quality, it was Dofasco’s turn to address its CLC via Zoom. Jochen Bezner, who is a mechanical engineer who has also studied metallurgy, was frustrated that day with the ministry’s answers. The ministry was hesitant to point fingers, he said—even though the smell had to have come from the coking operations (which rely on metallurgical coal) at either Stelco or Dofasco. “I want the ministry to dig a little deeper because this springtime has been really awful, in the smell of coal,” said Bezner.

Stephen Burt, district manager of the ministry’s Hamilton office, replied on the same Zoom call that he was not ruling out further investigation and denied “brushing [the issue] under the rug.” 

Afterward, Lukasik asked the Dofasco representative how his company was responding to the ministry’s request to voluntarily curtail emissions. Dofasco environmental director John Lundrigan seemed unprepared for this question, offering this: “We do have a standardized process…when we are notified by the ministry. We have a procedure where we walk through the number of areas [on the checklist].” 

At a separate Stelco CLC on April 28, that company’s environmental affairs manager, Andrew Sebestyen, was more forthcoming: “We got the notice of the odour going out and I immediately contacted our operations people in the plan that we have in place…Anything that could be stopped was stopped.” 

Jochen Bezner is still skeptical. He describes all of this as “window dressing,” since neither Stelco nor Dofasco can afford to curtail their operations on short notice to meet the ministry’s request. “At the end of the day the community is stuck with the emissions, regardless,” he says.

In 2005, Ontario adopted tough new air-quality measures for industry (regulation 419 under the Environment Protection Act). According to an ex-ministry source who wants to remain anonymous (a retired air-quality engineer familiar with ministry practices and polices), ministry staff spent another few more years developing a raft of new technical standards, the intent being to catch up with more advanced air-quality standards for industry in the United States. 

The question in 2021 is whether regulation 419 will ever fully come into force. Lynda Lukasik is doubtful, citing the slow and incremental pace that never seems to reach actual adoption. So is the retired engineer, who says the regulation was designed with the science in mind but the steel industry is firm that it cannot comply: “There is technology there to reduce emissions. [The companies] basically have to redo the whole coke-making process or get rid of it in steelmaking. The problem [with] that is it can affect significantly the steel productivity and product quality.” 

Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler told me that that over the past decade the ministry has negotiated site-specific standard agreements with the companies that establish benchmarking goals for reducing several dangerous contaminants emitted by the steel and iron sectors. These include benzo[a]pyrene, benzine, suspended particulate matter, and manganese. Sulphur dioxide, another substance of concern, is not yet on this list. 

Benzo[a]pyrene is especially lethal as a carcinogen, which explains the ministry’s recent decision, in response to a community request, to do more air-monitoring for this substance in the vicinity of the steel plants. 

Wheeler maintains that there has been progress under the agreements. He says that the facility-wide maximum modelled concentrations of benzo[a]pyrene for the Stelco and Dofasco plants have been reduced by about 35 to 40 per cent since 2015. 

Early last December residents were given an opportunity to provide suggestions for improving the process for site-specific standard action plans at the Environmental Registry of Ontario. One concern raised by the Citizens Against Pollution was the ministry’s failure to toughen up the air-quality standards for contaminants over the next two-and-a-half years. Another was that the community was not given enough time to provide meaningful feedback. 

Afterward, Jochen Bezner says that “very limited changes” have sprung from the feedback given to the ministry. One was the additional air-monitoring for benzo[a]pyrene, mentioned earlier. The other is that Stelco’s particulate limit was adjusted downward by about 40 per cent, to match what Dofasco was obligated to meet. “For some reason Stelco for 10 years had a much higher [limit],” Bezner said, “which for at least the last five years was not justified.” 

If Canada is to meet its Paris Agreement climate change goals, the steel industry will ultimately have to eliminate coke ovens and make green steel, which is produced using hydrogen generated by renewable energy sources. This is actively being investigated in Europe. Will the Canadian industry follow suit? 

Dofasco’s John Lundrigan says it’s too early to say: “There are multiple different paths [for] how a steel company can get to a net-zero state.” But he added that it’s a “great and exciting time to be in this business.” 

Meanwhile, people living in or around the Hamilton industrial harbour face two worrisome carcinogenic substances associated with the way that steel is now made. 

An updated 2021 ministry study showed that residents of Hamilton’s Beach Strip neighbourhood have a one-in-10,000 chance of experiencing in their lifetime respiratory cancer from benzo[a]pyrene, plus blood and bone marrow cancer and acute myeloid leukemia from benzine. This drops to one in 100,000 in other areas of Hamilton and Burlington. Outside these cities, the rate in southern Ontario drops further to one in a million, which is considered normal. 

On a more positive note, resourceful residents reporting and taking photos of black smoke coming out of the stacks forced the ministry to act, says Lukasik, who was also a witness in a recent court case against Dofasco. On May 25 the company pleaded guilty to violating provincial air-quality standards after a massive release of pollutants from its blast furnace in July 2018. It was ordered to pay a fine of $268,750. 

The company faces two new changes for  two blast furnace emissions on separate days in February 2019.  “One of them was pretty severe – probably the worst we’ve ever seen,” according to an Environment Hamilton press release.