Alberta oilsands air pollution worsens: report

EDMONTON – Air quality tests show oilsands companies breached Alberta’s air pollution targets more in 2009 than ever before, according to an environmental report released this week.

Environmental Defence Canada analyzed air quality data collected by industry-funded monitors over the past six years, and found companies violated the province’s air quality standards more than 1,500 times in 2009, up from less than 50 times in 2004.

"We have heard repeatedly from federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Premier Ed Stelmach that they are getting tough on the oilsands, that they are working on cleaning it up. It hasn’t happened," Environmental Defence program manager Gillian McEachern said Tuesday.

"We need to move beyond talking tough to actually putting in place measures to fix the problem."

The report calls on the federal government to make good on its October 2006 promise to pass a federal Clean Air Act that would cap the amount of pollutants oilsands operators are allowed to emit.

The 18-page report, Dirty Oil Dirty Air, is based on air quality information collected by the independent Wood Buffalo Environment Association, an air quality monitoring organization funded by oil companies and operated with input from a long list of government and community stakeholders.

Environmental Defence compared the air quality data to the province’s Ambient Air Quality Objectives, which set emissions standards for key air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and hydrogen sulphide.

When any of these air pollutants is measured at a higher level than the province’s limit, WEBA records an "exceedance."

In 2009, there were 1,556 exceedances, up from 47 in 2004.

The report says that, in high doses, these pollutants have been linked to respiratory illness, heart disease, emphysema, bronchitis, headaches, nausea, spontaneous abortion and impaired neurological function. However, it is not clear from the data how large the exceedances were.

Alberta Environment spokesman Chris Bourdeau said the system is working precisely as it was designed to work. Exceedances act as triggers, he said, so the government knows when air pollution is on the rise and can deal with the problem.

"We’re not hiding from the fact that exceedances did increase," Bourdeau said. In this case, the spike was traced to an increase in hydrogen sulphide emissions from a Suncor tailings pond. A team of provincial experts is working with the company to reduce emissions, and the numbers are coming down, Boudreau said.

He also said those who live in the region need not worry about health concerns associated with the exceedances.

"It’s a nuisance issue, it’s an odour issue, it’s not a health issue," he said. "If you look at our overall air quality numbers, they’re showing that 95 per cent of the time the air quality is good."

Edmonton Journal

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