WHILE American and Canadian politicians argue about acid-rain legislation, North America's largest producer of sulfur-dioxide emissions says, ``It's time to stop talking and take action.'' Inco Ltd. says it will spend $500 million (Canadian: US$418 million) to prove that this isn't just a public relations smoke screen.
Inco is well-known for being the largest nickel producer in the Western world and for a 1,250-foot ``superstack'' at its Sudbury, Ontario, smelter complex that pours 685,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each year. Although that's a 70 percent reduction from 1960s levels, the superstack remains a symbol of environmental concerns.
So the company recently unveiled its five-year program to cut its sulfur-dioxide levels by another 60 percent, to 265,000 tons annually. That would be the largest reduction in Canada's acid-rain control programs. It means that 90 percent of the sulfur content in Inco's Sudbury ore will be captured before it reaches the stack.
New technology makes it ``perfectly feasible to build a clean smelter and an efficient smelter and be economically successful and environmentally clean,'' says Inco executive vice-president Roy Aitken, who is in charge of the cleanup. That's a big change for a company that once argued that government pollution-control orders were too expensive, technologically impossible, or of little benefit in reducing acid rain. In 1985, the provincial government gave Inco, two other smelters, and Ontario Hydro until the end of 1988 to produce plans for a 60 percent cut in sulfur-dioxide emissions over five years. At the time, Inco said the move was ``the straw that threatens to break the camel's back.''
Today, the company says it will use new milling technology to remove more sulfur from the ore prior to smelting. New oxygen flash smelting furnaces, developed at Inco, will capture more of the sulfur-dioxide gases, which will be converted to liquid sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid in a new plant.
Inco says that although the milling changes will provide a 22 percent rate of return, the construction of new facilities can only be justified as a means to control pollution. The company won't seek any government assistance for this program. Aitken admits that it's hard to ask for handouts when you consider Inco's record US$734.5 million earnings last year, combined with a large dividend payout. It will, however, ask for some federal help for research and development aimed at making even deeper cuts in emission levels after 1994.
Inco has been promoting its environmental awareness through a $500,000 advertising campaign.
Some of the company's critics view Inco's pronouncements on the sanctity of the environment with suspicion. Michael Perley of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain says Inco's program came about because of ``a combination of legal sanctions and firm resolve on the part of government.''
``When you've got 80 percent of Canadian people saying, `We don't like what's happening to the environment,''' says Aitken, ``this is a national crusade you're looking at, and companies like Inco would ignore that at their peril.'' Aitken has served as vice-chairman of Canada's National Task Force on the Environment and the Economy.
Whatever the motivation, less pollution from the superstack means more muscle for the Canadian government as it presses for tougher environmental controls from the US. In Mr. Perley's words, ``It removes lack of action [by Canada] as an excuse by our adversaries.''