Alberta on track to have worst air quality in Canada, provincial environment minister says

Alberta is on track to have the worst air quality in Canada if immediate action isn’t taken to address pollution from coal-fired power plants, oil and gas facilities and vehicles, says the province’s environment minister.

Shannon Phillips said Wednesday she has directed her ministry to come up with a plan by month’s end to address the causes of air pollution after a new national air quality testing program found serious issues in central Alberta and slightly less serious concerns with four of five other regions.

Phillips said she wants to see better results in the annual testing next year.

“What I expect is that we will continue to see improvement on this until Alberta is no longer on track to have the worst air quality in Canada,” she told reporters at the legislature.

The testing, under the direction of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, found the Red Deer region exceeded Canadian ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter and ozone.

All other regions of the province — the lower Athabasca, upper Athabasca, North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan areas — except the Peace Country were found to be approaching the limits for particulate matter, which includes nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

The air quality management system testing also found the North Saskatchewan region, which includes Edmonton, is approaching the limits for ozone.

“We are concerned by these Canadian ambient air quality results,” Phillips said following a technical briefing for the media. “The time to act is long overdue.”

She said failing to act will cost every Albertan more, regardless of where they live.

“These costs show up in our emergency rooms and in our workplaces in the form of lost productivity,” she said. “The previous government resisted meaningful action on air pollution and climate change and today’s results speak to that inaction.”

Phillips said the testing for levels of fine particulate matter was conducted because it has a large impact on human health, but stressed there are no immediate health risks to people in central Alberta.

She said her government will begin implementing action plans immediately that will include reviewing technology that could be used to reduce harmful emissions from industrial emitters, as well as using the licence renewal process to ensure industrial emitters are meeting new, stricter national standards.

The 10-year operating licences of many coal-fired power plants are currently up for renewal, ministry officials said.

“Looking ahead we’re exploring a number of further measures to reduce air pollution, including emissions standards for vehicles,” the minister said. “That work will be incorporated into the ongoing efforts of our climate change advisory panel, which will provide advice to our government this fall.”

The Pembina Institute said Wednesday that the best action the province could take to address the problem would be to expedite the retirement of coal-fired power plants in Alberta.

“Measures that tackle carbon pollution would also contribute to cleaner air, so long as they address the biggest contributors to deteriorating air quality in Alberta,” said Chris Severson-Baker, Pembina’s Alberta director.

Measures that tackle carbon pollution would also contribute to cleaner air, so long as they address the biggest contributors to deteriorating air quality in Alberta

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment said it was dismayed, but not surprised, by the findings.

“This calls into question the pervasive belief that the clear blue skies of Alberta foster clean air, safe from the pollutants better known from smoggier climes,” said Dr. Joe Vipond.

“We know that (fine particulate matter) has negative effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of people and that exposure increases premature deaths, hospital admissions, and chronic diseases.”

Wildrose critic Leela Aheer was skeptical of both the findings and the timing of the report.

“They’re saying Red Deer has Alberta’s dirtiest air,” Aheer noted. “Based on what? There’s no corroborative evidence provided.”

The MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View said Phillips’ claim that Alberta will have the worst air quality in the country within five years sounded “far-fetched.”

“There’s a very little amount of information to make such an unbelievably strong opinion,” Aheer said. “I think personally they are ramping up for the upcoming (climate change) summit in Paris.”

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