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Alarming Levels of Air Pollution Identified Across Alberta, Fossil Fuels the Culprit

The results of a new national air quality survey released Wednesday shows levels of fine particulate pollution and ozone exposure in Red Deer, Alta., exceed safe standards. And four of the province's six air zones, including the Upper and Lower Athabasca and North and South Saskatchewan, all home to major oil and gas projects, are fast approaching those limits, according to the province.

Shannon Phillips, Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks, said the results of the air quality assessment are “concerning.”

“We can’t keep going down the same path and expecting a different result. Our government has a responsibility to protect the health of Albertans by ensuring air pollution from all sources is addressed. Without action, Alberta is on track to have the worst air quality in Canada in the coming years.”

The province announced it will immediately work to implement plans developed under the Canadian Air Zone Management Framework and is considering tougher regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as for vehicles. Increased air monitoring initiatives are also being considered.

In 2012, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment developed new Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate and ozone. Under these new standards, the Red Deer air zone “requires a mandatory response action plan,” the province stated in a press release.

Air zones in Alberta. Image: Alberta Environment

According to Chris Severson-Baker, Alberta regional director at the Pembina Institute, the air quality report “adds to the mounting evidence that Alberta needs to reduce air pollution across the province.”

“Alberta has been too slow to take action on existing pollution sources, and new ones have been added without regard for the cumulative impacts,” he said.

Contaminated Air a Threat to Human Health

Severson-Baker added high levels of pollution in Alberta “places an unacceptable burden on people’s health and on the environment.”

“The harmful pollutants that form fine particles — nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide — are released by burning fossil fuels. The biggest contributing sources in Alberta, by far, are oil-and-gas operations, coal plant smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes.”

Poor air quality near Peace River made national headlines last year after the Alberta Energy Regulator launched a public inquiry into residents’ complaints of nausea, headaches, insomnia and blackouts. Residents had expressed concern since 2009 that nearby oilsands operations were filling the air with toxic contaminants.

In April 2014, the Alberta Energy Regulator agreed emissions rules needed to be strengthened to protect human health.

Alberta’s Coal Consumption Highest in Canada

Alberta's new NDP government has indicated it is considering stricter emissions rules for the oil and gas industry and is currently seeking input from the public for a climate change action plan.

Sevenson-Baker said working to curtail emissions to prevent climate change will also help to clean up Alberta’s air.

“Fortunately, the best options for addressing carbon emissions will also significantly lower air pollution,” he said. Alberta, in addition to being a major producer of oil and gas, is also one of the largest consumers of coal in Canada.

Coal power plants in Alberta. Image: Alberta Wilderness Association

Alberta currently consumes more coal for electrical power than all other Canadian provinces combined.

“In the short term, an accelerated transition away from coal power would considerably reduce air pollution in many of the key hot spots,” Sevenson-Baker said.

“The best thing the Alberta government could do to improve air quality is to take meaningful action on climate change. 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.”

In March Premier Rachel Notley said, “it’s time to make a tangible commitment to phasing out coal, ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.”

Image: Kris Krug

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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