Allegations are mounting that Cantimber Biotech’s operations are producing negative health effects for Port Alberni residents.
Stacey Gaiga, who lives in the neighbourhood above the facility, said that she and her neighbours are coming down sick as a result of Cantimber’s emissions.
“If you look at all of the evidence, we’ve got a neighbourhood with people that are so sick—two elderly men have bloody noses, I have blood in my nose every day, I’m coughing persistently for months.
“I’ve been to the doctor…and nothing cures it,” Gaiga said.
Cantimber Biotech set up shop in two Port Alberni Port Authority buildings near the corner of Harbour Road and Bruce Street in late 2015. The company intends to produce activated charcoal via what director of project development and research Michael Liu has stated is a clean process involving the pyrolysis of wood.
According to Gaiga, who cites the symptoms that neighbours are experiencing as well as a thesis written by Liu, she believes that Cantimber could be producing sulphur dioxide.
Liu, whose 2006 UBC Master of Science thesis is titled “Fermentation of hemicellulose rich liquid fraction derived from steam pretreated softwoods,” said that he was perplexed by any connections being drawn between his 10-year-old thesis and Cantimber.
“Sulphur dioxide is a chemical that was found in Michael Liu’s thesis that describes a process used to make either ethanol or fertilizer… I’m just connecting the dots,” Gaiga said.
Gaiga posted her concerns that sulphur dioxide was being used by Cantimber to create liquid fertilizer to multiple local Facebook groups as well as in an e-mail to the News and others.
Liu said that any allegations that Cantimber is using or emitting sulphur dioxide are false.
“The information on Facebook is completely inaccurate. We do not add any sulphur compounds or chemicals into the process,” Liu said.
“We do not have any sulphur on site that we add nor do we emit any sulphur—the process is exactly the same as a campfire.”
Regarding the liquid fertilizer by-product, Liu said that the product is wood vinegar, a natural side product of the charcoal production process.
“We can recover wood vinegar but that is not a sulphur containing compound, nor does it require sulphur,” said Liu.
“Wood vinegar is a by-product of pyrolysis… we don’t use it or sell it. It is produced by the condensation of the wood gas.”
Port authority CEO Zoran Knezevic said that while the liquid by-product can be used as a natural fertilizer, it’s produced in negligible quantities and not the purpose of Cantimber’s operations.
But Gaiga believes that the symptoms that she and her neighbours are experiencing are in line with those caused by sulphur dioxide exposure.
“We looked up what are the symptoms of sulphur dioxide exposure and the symptoms for sulphur dioxide exposure are exactly the symptoms that everyone is having,” she said, citing irritation to the nose, eyes, throat, and lungs, sore throat, runny nose, burning eyes, cough, difficulty breathing and headaches as among the symptoms,” said Gaiga.
Knezevic said that PAPA had seen no evidence supporting Gaiga’s claims.
“As far as we know, there is no evidence whatsoever of Cantimber using sulphur dioxide. They categorically deny the use of any chemical including sulphur dioxide.”
Knezevic added that the port authority was commissioning a third-party study on Cantimber’s operations and emissions.
“We are going to do an independent assessment—a third-party, unbiased report to confirm what Cantimber does or does not produce.”
Knezevic said that the study would be made available to the public and that he hopes it would clear up the rumours currently swirling around Cantimber’s operations.
“I think that they are fairly overblown and I think they border on defamation and fear mongering.”
While the City of Port Alberni has no direct authority over what occurs on PAPA lands, Mayor Mike Ruttan said that he had personally experienced ill effects that he said are caused by Cantimber.
“We’ve driven through, gotten out of the car and for us it’s almost an instant headache and very difficult to breathe,” Ruttan said, adding that the city was looking into increased air monitoring measures.
“Our first and foremost concern is public health… clearly this is not what we were promised as a community. We were promised that it was going to be a completely pollution-free process and that the only thing that would be coming out of there is a little bit of steam.”
Ruttan said that the city does not want to see industry polluting the waterfront.
“If we’re going to be introducing new industry to our waterfront, to the middle of our community, we as a community have worked too long and too hard to go backwards in terms of our air quality.”