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Nickel Air Quality Standards

Draft Regulation Amending the Clean Air Regulation

A comparative review of the regulatory framework for the nickel industry revealed that it would be advantageous to amend the nickel standard to achieve an optimal solution in terms of public health and environmental protection, as well as economic development. The review was conducted by four independent experts selected by the Comité interministériel d’examen de la norme sur le nickel.

The experts suggested an annual standard equivalent to the recommendation of the European Union would be appropriate: 20 nanograms per cubic metre (ng/m3).

The ambient air section of the Revue toxicologique de l’encadrement règlementaire de l’industrie du nickel (Toxicological Review of the Nickel Industry Regulatory Framework) concluded that 20 ng/m3 would prevent critical respiratory consequences of repeated exposure to nickel and should also provide carcinogenic protection. A 24-hour value would also be necessary to protect more sensitive individuals who may be more rapidly affected than the general population if exposed to high concentrations of this element. The target value is a suggested one, which implies that reasonable means should be taken based on best available technology to ensure compliance.

In the Rapport comparatif des règlementations applicables à la pollution de l’air ambiant par le nickel dans différentes régions du monde (Comparative Report on Ambient Air Nickel Pollution Regulations in Different Regions of the World), the use of a ceiling, i.e. a value not to be exceeded at any time, was suggested to ensure regulatory consistency with the other standards in the Clean Air Regulation (CAR). Consistency in the application of air quality standards and in the management of risks to the public and the environment is necessary. The principles for setting and applying air quality standards and criteria are defined in the Cadre de détermination et d'application (determination and application framework) (French, PDF, 236 KB).

Toxicology expert Michèle Bouchard concluded that the study selected by the Ministère to revise the nickel standard in 2013 was not internationally agreed upon. The new 24-hour standard, however, was determined by taking into consideration the main recommendations of an earlier study. The selected study recommended by Ms. Bouchard was conducted by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an organization universally recognized for the quality of its research. It should be noted that Dr. Bouchard is Vice-Dean of Research and Full Professor in the School of Public Health at the Université de Montréal, Head of the Chair in Toxicological Risk Analysis and Management, and Director of the Biomarkers/Xenobiotics and Nanoparticles Analysis Unit.

The difference observed between the value suggested by Ms. Bouchard and the eventually selected daily standard reflects slight methodological adjustments required to match Québec’s nickel standard with the other standards in the CAR. Ms. Bouchard has been consulted on this new daily standard and her comments were considered. The detailed calculation leading to the nickel standards are presented in the fiche technique de la norme de qualité de l’atmosphère relative au nickel (nickel air quality standard technical specifications sheet) (French, PDF, 251 KB).

Reports by experts commissioned by the Comité interministériel d’examen de la norme sur le nickel

1. Toxicological review of the ambient air component of the regulatory framework for the nickel industry

The review of the literature includes toxicological and epidemiological data used to determine air quality standards for nickel and its different compounds. It also includes a summary table of reference values used by various jurisdictions or organizations.

Setting an air quality standard requires risk assessment and management steps within a framework of defined principles and guidelines. A degree of consistency in the treatment of potential health hazards, the environmental effects of contaminants, the administrative enforcement of requirements for meeting air quality standards, and the management of risks is paramount.

Key points
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies nickel compounds as carcinogenic.
  • In addition to the possible effects of repeated exposure to nickel, effects may also be observed following a short period of exposure to higher concentrations.
  • More sensitive individuals, such as people suffering from asthma, may react to concentrations that would not impact the general population.
  • Several jurisdictions chose the 1996 studies conducted by the NTP (universally acknowledged for their quality) as the basis for their policies.
  • Several jurisdictions already suggest an average annual value based on the European Union recommendation of 20 ng/m3.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) estimate was not retained, since it is based on nickel subsulfide, which is one of the most toxic nickel compounds known and yet is hardly present in ambient air.
  • The 2013 study used to set the CAR 24-hour standard of 14 ng/m3 has some methodological weaknesses.
Proposals for amending the standard
  • An annual standard of 20 ng/m3 is recommended for preventing critical respiratory effects associated with repeated exposure to nickel and its compounds. Based on currently available information, this value should also protect individuals against carcinogenic effects associated with short-term exposure to nickel and its compounds.
  • A target 24-hour value of 40 ng/m3 could be selected in order to prevent respiratory effects in the most sensitive individuals.


2. Rapport comparatif des règlementations applicables à la pollution de l’air ambiant par le nickel dans différentes régions du monde (Comparative report on regulations applicable to ambient air nickel pollution in various regions of the world) (French PDF, 2,7 MB)

The purpose of this report is to provide a comparative analysis of ambient air protection regulations that apply to the nickel industry, in jurisdictions where the industry operates, and to recommend a strategy or approaches that could be used by Québec.

The air quality standards for nickel compounds set by different jurisdictions vary on the basis of factors such as the date of standards review, effects to be prevented, risk levels deemed acceptable and particle size targeted by the standard. In addition, in order to assess the stringency of a particular standard, the regulatory framework employed and the compliance requirements must be considered.

Key points
  • Some jurisdictions have set a target value for nickel, which is equivalent to an obligation to take reasonable compliance steps based on best available technology. By contrast, other jurisdictions have opted for a limit value, which corresponds to an obligation of result, i.e. a value that must not be exceeded at any time. Limit values are more restrictive than target values.
  • In all jurisdictions that were surveyed, penalties are used to achieve compliance with nickel standards or values. However, as a general rule, continuous improvement measures are initially requested, i.e. incentives first, penalties later.
  • Some jurisdictions employ mechanisms allowing various sectors to deviate from the existing standard, as well as site-specific standards.
Proposals for amending the standard
  • Set an annual standard of 20 ng/m3 based on the value recommended by the European Union.
  • Set a nickel standard based on a limit value principle for the purpose of consistency with other Clean Air Regulation standards.
  • Avoid approaches such as Ontario’s, leading to case-by-case negotiations on project authorization, which is not desirable.


3. Revue du cadre règlementaire relatif à l'industrie du nickel - Volet air ambiant (Review of the ambient air component of the nickel industry regulatory framework) (French, PDF, 3,5 MB)

This report presents a comparison of the requirements imposed by different jurisdictions before authorizing nickel emitting projects, in addition to a profile of the nickel industry in these jurisdictions. In order to properly document the specific context of Québec, the report provides a status report on ambient air quality as it relates to nickel in Québec.

Nickel emission sources can vary from one jurisdiction to another. This means that the jurisdictional regulatory framework can be tailored to improve emission control at source. Moreover, air quality standards are not the only mechanism that can be put in place to limit ambient air nickel emission.

Key points
  • Nickel concentrations measured in ambient air in Québec when there are no nickel facilities nearby are generally low and representative of concentrations observed elsewhere in the world.
  • A decrease in ambient air nickel concentration was observed between 2006 and 2015 at measurement stations located near emission sources in Québec.
  • In Western countries where nickel is mined, few jurisdictions employ an ambient nickel criterion or standard that requires modelling or monitoring for project approval. In addition, some jurisdictions, such as Ontario and European countries, have chosen a supportive strategy rather than a punitive approach.
  • Ontario is one of the jurisdictions with the most developed requirements for nickel in ambient air. Its regulation includes mechanisms that permit some degree of variance from the existing standard, such as allowances for specific industrial sectors and site-specific norms.
  • The application of best available technology is essential for reducing ambient air nickel concentrations. For example, concentrate or ore should be processed and handled within closed buildings and conveyor belts. Moreover, applying best available technology does not entail disproportionate costs.
  • Applying a daily rather than annual standard could potentially lead to exceedances whether or not the emitter used best available technology.
Proposals for amending the standard
  • Apply the annual standard of 20 ng/m3 that is recommended by the European Union.
  • If a daily standard is retained, allow an exceedance percentage, for example, that could be applicable on the 98th percentil.


4. Évaluation des impacts économiques de la norme actuelle relative au nickel, du Règlement sur l’assainissement de l’atmosphère, sur l’industrie du nickel au Québec (Assessment of the economic impact of the current Clean Air Regulation nickel standard on Québec’s nickel industry) (French, PDF, 1,8 MB)

The purpose of this report is to quantify the economic benefits flowing from the nickel industry and to put into perspective the potential economic consequences associated with the nickel standard in its current form. Data on the Québec and world nickel markets were collected, interviews were conducted with industry players in Québec and simulations were carried out with the inter-sector model of the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ). In addition, a review was conducted on Québec’s investment attractiveness in relation to its nickel standard.

Key points
  • Nickel mining injects more than $500 million annually into the Québec economy and contributes to more than 2,900 direct and indirect jobs, $340 million in annual GDP and $72 million in annual tax and quasi-tax revenues for Québec.
    • The combined labour force and supplier base of the two current operating nickel mining corporations (Glencore Mine Raglan and Canadian Royalties) exceeds 1,000 from 17 administrative regions of Québec.
  • Approximately 22% of operating expenditures and 17% of direct employment at nickel mine sites, excluding contractors, are related to indigenous groups. This includes profit sharing amounts.
  • New nickel mining projects could emerge on the international scene since demand is expected to rise sharply, particularly due to the projected growth of the electric vehicle battery market and the upward trajectory of nickel prices.
  • Nickel is the third most sought after mineral substance in Québec. The life extension project of the Raglan Mine and the Phase II Dumont Project are set to double the production of nickel in Québec.
  • Nickel mining companies could face potential repeat exceedances if the current nickel standard is not amended.
  • The production costs faced by Canadian mining companies (and especially those located in Nord-du-Québec) are among the highest in the world.
    • The implementation of additional mitigation measures in response to potential standard exceedances would reduce the global competitiveness of nickel mines in Québec and could eventually lead them to slow production, either temporarily or permanently.
  • The level and recurrence of annual benefits associated with operating expenditures and recurring capital gains over the life of these projects are endangered, as projects could be slowed down or cancelled due to societal pressures or the lack of competitiveness of Québec nickel due to costs.
    • Each year of operational disturbance means an average of 1,600 direct and indirect jobs at risk of disappearing, as well as $310 M in annual GDP and $57 M in tax revenues.
  • A nickel standard that is more restrictive than elsewhere in Canada and/or the rest of the world could reduce Québec’s appeal for additional investments in the nickel sector, while the global context seems to be favourable to the development of new projects.
    • Potential alternatives include Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Australia.