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Gentili: Beware hexavalent chromium and the many ifs of the Coniston smelter

Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini is against the Coniston smelter proposal but it’s pretty early in the process to be drawing firm conclusions
In a statement released to the media Monday, Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini says he's opposed to building a chromite smelter near Coniston. (File)

If the Ring of Fire development happens this lifetime … if the chromite market doesn’t tank … if Noront Resources isn’t bought out by a bigger miner … if Coniston is selected as the site for a chromite smelter … if, if, if.

There are a lot of ifs when it comes to the city’s bid to host a ferrochrome processing facility (a.k.a. a smelter) on the site of the old Inco smelter in Coniston. These ifs aside, what appears to be a relatively small group of opponents have already taken up the fight against the project.

I’m not criticizing people for holding the city to account and expressing an opinion — far from it. I’m all for having an engaged citizenry, willing to stand up for what it believes in. That’s democracy. No, that’s not what I’m writing about. Today (again) I want to talk about Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini

Before I do that though, I should say that I have nothing personal against Mr. Vagnini. I keep writing columns taking him to task for statements he’s made and positions he’s taken that have been conspiratorial, populist and, to my mind, misguided. He does it far more often than his colleagues on city council, which is why I keep writing about him.

I’m not doing it just to pick on him. In fact, I quite like Mr. Vagnini. As a politician, we have our differences. And as a possible mayoral candidate who often makes very public statements in opposition to city council, his opinions are fair game for criticism.

This week, Mr. Vagnini issued a statement in which he both admitted he didn’t know much about chromite or ferrochrome processing, but still felt he knew enough to say he was “totally against” a smelter in Coniston.

To arrive at his opposition to the smelter (an unusual position for normally pro-development Mr. Vagnini), the Ward 2 councillor referenced a 2017 study that found processing of chromite produced hexavalent chromium, one of several forms of the element and a highly toxic one at that. 

You may have heard of hexavalent chromium as the villain in the 2000 biopic Erin Brokovich. Groundwater contaminated with the carcinogen from illegal dumping caused a rash of cancers in a California community.

With help from Northern Ontario Business editor Ian Ross, we found the study Mr. Vagnini referenced. The councillor was correct; it did find hexavalent chromium was produced in small amounts in ferrochrome smelting. But his press release contained a glaring omission: the study’s findings.

That’s a pretty big omission. By leaving out the conclusion, Mr. Vagnini implies any hexavalent chromium produced could contaminate Coniston the same way it contaminated the community in Erin Brokovich, which can lead readers to infer the project is inherently dangerous.

The study, however, concluded the opposite: that with proper procedures, modern smelting processes and current safety standards in place, ferrochrome can be produced with minimal impact on human health or the environment. The study also cites a Finnish cohort study that followed workers in the ferrochrome and stainless steel industries for 37 years. 

In the end, that long-term study found those workers weren’t at any more risk for cancer or death than anyone else. This is the opposite conclusion to what Mr. Vagnini alludes to in the statement he issued. He never explicitly states it, but he definitely implies it.

I’m not saying the study Mr. Vagnini cites proves ferrochrome smelting is absolutely safe, but it certainly shows the practice can be done with minimal human or environmental impacts. Either way though, it’s far too early to make definitive pronouncements as the city councillor has done.

There’s plenty of time for the process to unfold as it should, and there’s still plenty of time to reject the smelter if Noront Resources’ proposal is found lacking; if Coniston is chosen; if Noront isn’t bought out and the smelter scuttled. If, if, if …

Mark Gentili is the editor of Northern Life and