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Chemtrade seeking to continue liquid chlorine production in North Vancouver

Mayor Mike Little says the company has been directed to engage with his municipality before continuing lease negotiations with the port authority

Western Canada’s largest producer of chlorine is seeking to extend its ability to produce the high-risk chemical at its facility on the North Vancouver waterfront.

Due to concerns from the surrounding community when the facility’s lease was last renegotiated, Chemtrade Logistics Inc.’s current agreement would halt the company’s liquid chlorine operations by July 2030. Then the lease is set to fully expire in 2032, when Vancouver Fraser Port Authority will have the option to buy back the land Chemtrade owns.

To address this potential blow to its business, the multinational chemicals firm has entered into negotiations with the Port, which has authority over the lease. The North Shore News has also learned of an extensive lobbying effort, where Chemtrade has approached elected officials at multiple levels of government to ask for support in renegotiating its lease.

But despite the public safety implications a potential renegotiation could have on adjacent neighbourhoods, the matter has not yet been brought to the public’s attention.

There’s also potential conflict between the District of North Vancouver’s ambitions to build more housing in neighbouring areas and Chemtrade’s ability to further reduce risks of handling a highly corrosive substance to a level that could accommodate increased residential density.

Community consultation has always been part of Chemtrade’s plan, said Amy Jonsson, senior manager of corporate communications.

“But multiple steps, and decisions, are required before we can begin public engagement,” she said.

One of the steps that Chemtrade has taken so far is starting talks with the District of North Van, which has a long history with the nearly 70-year-old industrial site.

Before proceeding further with lease negotiations, the Port has directed Chemtrade to engage with the municipality, said DNV Mayor Mike Little.

When renegotiations last took place in 2007 with the facility’s previous owner Canexus, Little recalls there was a lot of political debate at the time.

“Obviously people were very concerned about a chlorine plant being close to residential development,” he said. “The district was quite interested in developing Maplewood Village and the risk contours were basically sanitizing the entire south half of Maplewood.

“You wouldn’t be able to put higher density housing in that area because of the 10-to-the-minus-five risk contour. And so the council of the day said that they weren’t interested in extending it. And as a condition to the Port, they said the only way they would let it continue was if [Canexus] ceased the operation of liquid chlorine and maybe looked at other products it can develop,” said Little, who was a newly elected councillor at the time.

When Chemtrade acquired Canexus in 2017, it assumed the lease with the related covenants.

Now, Little said he’s open to hear what Chemtrade will propose for the next round of negotiations. After that, the matter will likely go through a public process at council.

What risks are posed by liquid chlorine production in North Vancouver?

In controlled applications, chlorine is a useful chemical that sanitizes drinking water and bleaches paper products. When released unexpectedly in large quantities, the substance is harmful to humans, and often fatal at high concentrations.

According to the company’s own estimates, Chemtrade makes more than 70 per cent of the liquid chlorine available in B.C. and Alberta, from its property at 100 Amherst Ave., just a stone’s throw from the North Shore Recycling and Waste Centre. The Maplewood and Blueridge communities, as well as the səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) reserve, are only slightly farther away.

Dotting the nearby streets are other businesses, homes, an elementary school and a pre-school.

At the Chemtrade facility, chlorine is produced then put into rail cars as a pressurized liquid. When ready to leave, the cars are connected to train engines and transported to various clients, primarily in the Western Canada and the U.S.

Both the North Vancouver plant itself, which has changed hands several times since being built in 1957, and Chemtrade have strong safety records.

In 2023, the firm received a Platinum award for zero process safety related incidents from CN Rail, as well as a Gold level safe handling award for no non-accidental releases. Chemtrade was also recognized for its safety record by the American Association of Railroads in 2022.

While the liquid chlorine travels on rail cars through East Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and then further afield, the trains must adhere to speed restrictions in metropolitan areas as well as various other Transport Canada safety regulations for transporting dangerous goods.

But accidents involving chlorine have happened in other parts of the world in recent years. And there has been a high cost when they do.

Chemtrade’s safety record is strong, but other deadly chlorine accidents have happened elsewhere

In June 2022, a storage tank ruptured while being lifted off a ship in Jordan’s Aqaba port. A bright yellow cloud that burst from the tank left around a dozen dead and more than 250 injured. In 2005, a rail collision in downtown Graniteville, South Carolina, ruptured a tanker car carrying 81 tonnes of chlorine gas, killing nine and injuring 550 people, per local reports.

As for the dangers of liquid chlorine, there is a potential explosive element, where it can cause or intensify fire, explains Graham Gilley, current chair of the Windsor Secondary parent advisory committee and former board member of the Blueridge Community Association.

But the greater concern for the surrounding population is if the chlorine vapourizes in the air, Gilley said.

“Those tracks run all along the shoreline, so any onshore wind … could carry that up the mountain, so to speak, into the residential neighborhoods,” he said.

Gilley became very familiar with Chemtrade’s operation during his time as director of enterprise risk management at Mulgrave School for more than a decade. And he has toured the facility personally.

At the time of interview, Gilley said his community wasn’t aware of the lease negotiations, and that the response will depend on how the issue is presented.

“People will want to know about the measures in place to protect the public,” he said.

Since 2010, Chemtrade has invested more than $500 million on the North Van plant, much of which has gone to improving safety, said Jonsson.

“We have also significantly changed how the site operates. Using 2000 storage levels as a benchmark, the amount of liquid chlorine stored on site has been reduced by over 96 per cent,” the spokesperson said, adding that specific quantities aren’t disclosed by the publicly traded company.

In the event of a leak, the North Shore site is equipped with various safety protocols, which include an alert system in co-ordination with North Shore Emergency management.

Mayor Little has praised the work Chemtrade has done to reduce the amount of chlorine stored on site, but said he wants most of the risk moved back onto the property.

But such a substantial reduction in risk is unlikely to occur, explains Doug McCutcheon, a professional engineer who has reviewed Chemtrade’s risk assessments on behalf of the district.

“If they’re forced to reduce the risk level at their fence line (one-in-100,000 chance of an annual fatality, instead of one in 10,000) you can appreciate that’s a tenfold reduction in risk,” he said. “And you can probably say, ‘Well, it’s a tenfold increase in the assets that they have to be able to meet that risk criteria.'

“Those dollars are pretty costly, and would probably mean that the cost for chlorine would go up tenfold,” McCutcheon said. “My bet is that they would not do that.”

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