Canadian steel giant Dofasco and United States aluminium titan Alcoa are trying to “green” their notoriously polluting industries, as climate and public health concerns escalate. But with technology and energy gaps are complicating the effort.
Having secured C$900 million in public funds towards its $1.8 billion pledge to replace its coke ovens and blast furnaces with state-of-the-art electric arc units, Hamilton-based Dofasco does seem well on its way to ensuring much healthier air for nearby residents—although not until 2028, reports the Hamilton Spectator.
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Ceasing to use coal in its industrial operations will mean that Dofasco, Canada’s largest manufacturer of flat-rolled steel, is no longer Ontario’s biggest emitter of highly toxic benzene and benzo(a)pyrene pollution.
Describing these chemicals as “nasty stuff—definitely not something you want to be breathing,” and citing “overwhelming evidence” that they cause cancer, Professor Matthew Adams, an urban air quality researcher at the University of Toronto, told the Spectator, “we have a very intense interest in reducing human exposure to these pollutants.”
Dofasco reported emitting roughly 23 tonnes of benzene into Hamilton’s air in 2020—followed by its rival steelmaker Stelco, at 17 tonnes. Together, the two manufacturers generate nearly a quarter of Ontario’s annual benzene pollution.
And the situation is even worse when it comes to benzo(a)pyrene, with Dofasco contributing 58 kilograms of the dangerous carcinogen to Ontario’s air in 2020, nearly half the provincial total. It may not sound like much, but the pollution is far in excess of public health guidelines, as is the annual steel-generated tonnage of atmospheric benzene.
And much of it comes from burning coal, leaving neighbourhoods immediately downwind of the Dofasco smelter with a “lifetime incremental cancer risk” of one in 10,000, compared to the one in a million risk for those living in rural areas outside the city, and a one in 100,000 risk for city dwellers who live away from the smelter but along car-clogged roads.
Making the switch away from coal-fired coke ovens and furnaces will mean slashing other forms of air pollution as well, like sulphur dioxide and toluene, Tom Kuhl, Dofasco’s general manager of primary manufacturing, told the Spectator.
But beyond the undeniable benefits of much cleaner air, just how “green” Dofasco’s steel production will finally be, remains unclear.
“Public details are still scant around exactly what emissions will come from the steelmaker’s new electric arc furnace and direct reduced iron facility—which will run on natural gas at first, but later may switch to clean hydrogen,” writes the Spectator.
And even though “blue hydrogen” produced from natural gas is far from clean, or green, the Trudeau government in Ottawa and Doug Ford’s Conservatives in Ontario have pledged $400 million and $500 million respectively to Dofasco’s project, promoting it as a clean shift to “green steel.”
Dofasco says it’s pursuing genuinely green iron ore processing. Last month its parent company, ArcelorMittal, successfully added about 7% green hydrogen (sourced from hydroelectricity) to an iron ore processing run at its plant in Contrecoeur, Quebec.
As for their plans in Hamilton, many residents told The Spectator it was hard to get excited about a pollution reduction that won’t start for six years. “That’s a lot of time left for bad air days,” said local John Clarke.
Meanwhile in the U.S., efforts to reopen Alcoa Intalco’s giant aluminum smelter in Ferndale, Washington, as a “green” industry powered by running water, are being held back by the local power authority.
Citing limited supply, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is blocking the plant from plugging into its grid, creating a “deadlock over electricity” illustrative of a larger pattern as the U.S. struggles to bring industries back home andpower them with renewable energy, writes The Washington Post.
The surplus supplies of electricity that appeared during domestic aluminum’s decline from its heydays in the 1980s have been “swallowed up by a 15% increase in Washington state’s population; computer servers used by big tech firms to store information; and an influx of computers run continuously in a search for digital keys used to unlock cryptocurrencies,” writes the Post. “Bonneville Power Authority has also sold power to California to help meet urgent needs.”
So the pressure is on to find a way to get Intalco up and running:
“If we can’t successfully reopen Intalco, it is really bad for our broader efforts to transform and grow the U.S. manufacturing base,” Jason Walsh, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a collection of unions and environmental groups, told the Post. “This project embodies everything that President Biden and his cabinet talk about with respect to rebuilding a green energy economy and building a green factory base that reduces greenhouse gases,” Walsh added.
“The entire Washington state congressional delegation—including two Senate Democrats, seven House Democrats and three House Republicans,” agrees, adds the Post. The legislators recently wrote to the Bonneville authority, urging it to negotiate and reach an agreement with Blue Wolf Capital Partners, the New York-based private equity firm seeking to purchase the plant and reopen it. Governor Jay Inslee is also pushing Bonneville hard.
Industry veteran Michael Tanchuk cited projections that the plant could produce “240,000 tonnes of aluminum—10 to 20% more than imports from Russia in 2021,” adding that its dominant presence in “the niche market for green aluminum” will ensure its profitability. Tanchuk, who is leading Blue Wolf’s effort to restart Intalco, suggested the plant would move swiftly beyond hydro to solar and wind, once it’s up and running.
“With Intalco, the U.S. will again have a reliable supply of a critical material, America will produce green aluminum, and we will bring green jobs to America,” he said.
“But time is running out,” the Post writes. “Blue Wolf told officials in Whatcom County that their expenses have already exceeded $3 million and they may cut their losses soon if they cannot reach an agreement on electricity.”
BPA disputes the contention that it is the spanner in the works. Senior spokesperson Doug Johnson told the Post that while the agency doesn’t have the 400 megawatts of firm power the smelter is asking for, there are other investor-owned utilities in the region that do.
“We are not the only potential source of power to serve the plant’s needs,” he said.
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