FORT SASKATCHEWAN – As many as 750 jobs in the region will vanish if neighbours succeed in blocking expansion at an Agrium fertilizer plant, the company says.

But some nearby residents say their lives may be at stake because the plant, near Redwater, leaks fluoride and low-level radiation. Others insist at a minimum there should be extra safeguards in place before expansion goes ahead.

Agrium made its case for the $24-million project at the start of a hearing before the Natural Resources Conservation Board on Monday.
It said the expansion will not boost the scale of operations but will add storage space for its little-used gypsum byproduct.

Without the expansion, which would cover 119 hectares, Agrium said it must end phosphate production at Redwater within two years. Several ammonia facilities and a nitrogen plant at the site, about 25 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, would also be threatened, the company said.

“Within just the Alberta region we would be looking at about 750 jobs that we would be losing as a result of not gaining this extension,” Alex Watson, general manager for Agrium’s Redwater and Fort Saskatchewan plants, said outside the hearing. He said 260 staff and permanent contractors depend on the project, and several hundred spinoff jobs are at stake.

The extra storage would extend the Redwater operation’s life by 26 years, Watson said. “Without gaining this extension project, we will end up having to curtail our operations by the end of the year and shut it down within a couple of years from now.”

He dismissed concerns that low levels of fluoride and radiation emissions from the site are health risks. “The change in any of the levels of contamination are either insignificant or can’t even be detected within background.”

But Cheryl Henkelman, who lives across the North Saskatchewan River, east of the plant, said neighbours have reasons to be fearful.

Henkelman represents Northeast Strathcona County Residents, eight families that are challenging the expansion.

“Of course we don’t want people to lose their jobs,” she said, “but we fear for our lives.”

The group will provide evidence during the hearing that there are dangers from radiation and fluoride, she said.

Activity at the plant, combined with the spread of other industrial projects in the area, has made life unbearable, she said. Noise from the Agrium site is among the concerns.

“We’re sleep deprived,” Henkelman said. “You get super-edgy from the noise.”

Anne Brown said she doesn’t oppose the expansion outright — but wants to make sure there’s enough monitoring to ensure the plant is safe.

“We’re not against industry, but we need to make sure that the health of our children is not being put at stake,” Brown said. “We realize the benefit of it, but it needs to be done responsibly.”