It's time for an inquiry into Ontario's air-quality rules
A.C. Goddard-Hill

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - 09:00 Opinion Columns - Recently, in the provincial legislature, the minister of environment stated that last year, 5,800 Ontario residents died prematurely from the effects of air pollution. In Ontario, these deaths are classified by the government as due to natural causes. However, given that chemical intoxication is involved, one might wonder if some regulatory problem may also be implicated.

Smog has four main sources: automobile exhaust, coal-fired power generation, industrial smokestack emissions and waste incineration. Locally, the latter two provide an illustrative case study.

As acting medical officer of health in Hastings-Prince Edward in 2004-2005, I investigated the Lafarge proposal to burn alternative fuels at its plant in Bath. In October 2004, a 28- point review was submitted to the minister of environment - the regulator - in which a number of questions about the proposal were raised.

The first response to the letter was a phone call from the proponent company. Over the next 12 months, the Ministry of Environment didn't reply to the explicit and implicit questions of public health significance that had been raised. More than a year later, in November 2005, when the province made the decision not to conduct an environmental assessment, the public interest group that had requested the environmental assessment had not been informed by the Ministry of Environment that the medical officer of health was interested in the matter.

This course of events ran counter to provincial public health regulations, to recommendations in the 2001 O'Connor report on the Walkerton tainted water incident, and to the Ministry of Environment's own stated policy, which is that "while it is desirable to involve all the stakeholders in the process as early as possible, it is envisaged that the initial stages will include, as a minimum, the facility, the MoE, and other regulatory agencies such as the local medical officer of health [as well as] community based [non-governmental organizations] and health experts."

Meanwhile, the further defilement of eastern Ontario's air quality continues. For example, the Ontario government has recently approved the construction of a "plasma gasification facility" in Ottawa, notwithstanding the operation of one such experimental gasification facility in Trenton for about five years now with no information on air-emissions data forthcoming from the regulator.

A public inquiry into regulation of industrial air emissions in Ontario is needed. It would serve a number of purposes.

In the first instance, a public inquiry would provide an opportunity to examine the fundamental premise upon which regulation of industrial air emissions in Ontario is currently based, which, in essence, is that of stack emission dispersion by the four winds minimally mitigated through the smoke, mirrors and magic of computer modelling, distant monitoring and risk management. Unfortunately, the annual spectacle of the smog season, with its attendant disease and death from chemical exacerbations of heart and lung disease, exposes current air regulation as ineffective.

The current system employs a deceit reminiscent of practices implicated in the Walkerton incident. In that case, local officials submitted for laboratory testing samples of commercially bottled water from a distant supplier rather than source well water. Seven people died. In industrial air pollution regulation, we submit air samples taken from locations distant from the source or, worse, use computer-based predictions of what such samples might contain, rather than acting on direct measurement of stack emissions. A system of air regulation that is effective would not allow a billion kilograms of chemical pollutants to be released by industry into the Great Lakes basin atmosphere every year, and would not cause 85 people in Hastings-Prince Edward alone to die annually from the effects of air pollution.

Much better would be regulation towards zero discharge by stack-emission monitoring at source, as has long been recommended by the International Joint Commission and as was contracted for by the Canadian and American governments in the late, lamented and largely neglected Binational Toxics Release Strategy (1987-1997, for implementation in 1997-2006). It is thus literally past time that the Province of Ontario acknowledged these recommendations and acted accordingly.

A public inquiry would also provide an opportunity to examine specific cases in the province. In the past seven years of industrial air emission regulation in Eastern Ontario alone, there have been at least six cases that need review. There may be other examples from the rest of the province.

In 2005, five organizations independently made important contributions in the public health aspects of air quality. These were the Ontario Medical Association, Cancer Care Ontario, the International Joint Commission, the North American Free Trade Association's Commission for Environmental Co-operation and Toronto Public Health. Unfortunately, the wider Ontario public health community, which should be leading the discussion, has remained silent.

Under the current Ontario air quality regulatory system, human health issues are not being properly addressed. Let us therefore recall Judge Dennis O'Connor to continue the excellent work he did in his review of water regulation and let him apply the same independent and sensible approach to a provincial review of air quality regulation. At present, what we have is dysregulation. The result is that the public health impact of bad air is much greater than that of bad water in Ontario.

A. C. Goddard-Hill, MD, lives in Belleville.

ID- 153059