Aerial view of a coal-fired power plant.

University of Alberta air quality research reviewed by coal producer prior to publication, documents reveal

Research released by the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health on the health effects of coal-fired power plants was reviewed prior to publication by TransAlta, one of Alberta’s largest utility providers and coal producers, documents released to The Narwhal under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

More than 550 pages of emails and documents exchanged between TransAlta executives and University of Alberta researcher Warren Kindzierski show the company was heavily involved in assigning, reviewing and publicizing research that would promote the coal industry as the government moved forward with a province-wide coal phase-out.

The correspondence between Kindzierski and TransAlta show the researcher sought input from company executives on draft versions of his research, asking how the company would like to proceed based on his findings. Kindzierski also accompanied TransAlta executives to meetings with government officials where Kindzierski presented slides reviewed in advance by the company.

The documents also show Kindzierski offered pointers for TransAlta communications personnel to consider during the development of company messaging.

In one email to TransAlta, Kindzierski tells officials they will “not be disappointed” in his findings.

“These emails show a pretty close relationship between TransAlta and Dr. Kindzierski, and in some cases show that Dr. Kindzierski was aware of the outcome that TransAlta wanted from his research, which could facilitate bias in his research,” Andrew Read, a professional engineer and former senior analyst with the Pembina Institute who is now working with the city Edmonton’s environmental strategies team, told The Narwhal upon reviewing a portion of the documents.

“What would have happened if the research didn’t align with TransAlta’s interests? Would we have ever seen the publication then?”

TransAlta paid University of Alberta $54,000 for research on health impacts of coal

A previous Freedom of Information request found TransAlta is a regular funder of Kindzierski’s research at the University of Alberta. Those documents revealed TransAlta provided the University of Alberta $54,000 in exchange for research on the health impacts of coal-fired power plants near Edmonton.

The findings of that initial information request prompted The Narwhal to file a secondary request, asking for communications between Kindzierski and TransAlta during the time the research was undertaken.

TransAlta owns and operates Canada’s largest surface strip coal mine, the Highvale Mine. The 12,600-hectare coal mine, managed by TransAlta’s wholly-owned subsidiary Sunhills Mining, produces 13 million tonnes of thermal grade coal each year, which is used to power three of TransAlta’s power stations.

In September 2015 a national air quality study found Alberta had some of the worst air quality levels in Canada due to coal power plants, oil and gas development and vehicle use.

The new tranche of documents show that in light of that study, on September 10, 2015, Oliver Bussler, director of sustainable development at TransAlta, told Kindzierski his research would be “very timely” and asked, “since you are a recognized expert in this area, I was wondering if you have heard what the Environment Ministry may have planned to address the cause of air pollution.”

Kindzierski responded to Bussler’s email saying, “ ‘far-fetched’ would be a good way to characterize the lack of understanding of this issue.”

In April of 2015 the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), a public health and environmental advocacy group, released a study that showed that, according to government of Alberta figures, levels of harmful air pollution in Edmonton exceeded those of Toronto, a major metropolis with five times the population.

The study showed that during several winter days between 2010 and 2012, levels of particulate matter in Edmonton exceeded legal limits. Fine particulate matter, according to Alberta Environment, measures 2.5 microns or less in diameter. Red blood cells are 5 microns in diameter and the width of an average human hair is roughly 75 microns.

Because of its small size, fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5, can accumulate in the respiratory system and dissolve into the bloodstream, leading to chronic health effects and breathing problems.

A broad mix of emissions come from the burning of coal in addition to PM 2.5: SOx, NOx, mercury, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzenes. These pollutants have significant effects on respiratory and cardiovascular health and some are cancer-causing agents.

Kindzierski has published several studies showing pollutants in the Alberta airshed come from a mix of sources and not just coal. He has used his research to argue coal is being unfairly targeted and that harmful impacts associated with burning coal are overblown.

According to public disclosure records, Kindzierski made $194,670.22 in salary and benefits at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health in 2016. He made $189,603.06 in 2015.

TransAlta provided at least another $175,000 to the University of Alberta between 2013 and 2015 through additional sponsorship arrangements that are not transparent to the public, raising concerns about the movement of industry funds through public institutions.

‘Remove the slides’

In a series of e-mails between Kindzierski and Bussler the two discussed a presentation Kindzierski would make to Alberta government officials regarding his research.

Kindzierski provided Bussler with a draft version of a presentation, which Bussler said he would review and “provide feedback.”

Kindzierski offered to remove material in his presentation related to the CAPE study: “We can possibly remove the slides related to 2010/CAPE claim.”

Bussler replied: “I have no concerns with including the slides related to 2010/CAPE claim. Since the CAPE claims are on everyone’s’ minds [sic], I think it would be best to address them upfront.”

The documents show Kindzierski made alterations in his presentation in advance of a series of meetings with government officials.

“We have reorganized the presentation, putting the majority of the technical details in the appendix,” Kindzierski wrote to Bussler on September 12, 2015.

“The presentation looks good from my perspective,” Bussler replied. “Since my colleagues are more familiar with the policy maker audience to whom you will be presenting, I’m going to see if they have any final comments on the materials.”

In another e-mail Bussler noted: “It is not my intention to suggest what you should say. The study is very much your work and independent. I do however think it is important how we decided [sic] to relay the information should consider the audience.”

A spokesperson for the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health said as an independent researcher hired by TransAlta, Kindzierski “was obligated to present his findings to TransAlta for preview prior to publication.”

“At the University of Alberta, we value intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression, and the equality and dignity of all persons as the foundation of ethical conduct in research, teaching, learning, and service,” the spokesperson said.

“It is our position that Kindzierski has acted according to these values and conducted his research and communication of that research, ethically and responsibly.”

Kindzierski declined to provide further comment, saying “all the comments I would have, they were provided by the university officially.”

Read said universities need to take claims of bias in research very seriously.

“It’s critical to resolve and make clear to the public they are providing independent research that can be relied on legitimately,” he said.

Industry-funded research concluded coal-fired power plants safe for health of local residents

Kindzierski’s research, published on TransAlta’s website in the spring of 2016 and bearing the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health insignia, concluded coal-fired power plants near the city of Edmonton do not negatively impact the health of local residents.

In a previous interview Kindzierski said the study had been accepted for publication at three peer-reviewed “high-quality impact journals.”

However, in an e-mail to Don Wharton, TransAlta’s vice-president of policy and sustainability, Kindzierski writes the study accepted for publication is not the one published on TransAlta’s website.

“Our study being published is actually different than what we did last fall; but the news from your perspective is just as good,” Kindzierski wrote to Wharton.

In the same exchange Kindzierski asks Wharton to extend TransAlta’s funding contract for two months. “This allows me to continue funding the research assistant on your contract,” he wrote.

Additional emails exchanged between Kindzierski and Wharton show Kindzierski actively solicited feedback from the company on draft versions of his research.

In an email dated October 15, 2015, Kindzierski provided Wharton with a copy of the draft report. Two days later Kindzierski sent a revised version of the report to Wharton and followed up after a week, asking if company representatives had any response.

“Don, I hope things are going well,” Kindzierski wrote on October 28, 2015. “I would like to check with you about any feedback from the draft report we provided with you [sic]11 days ago and finalizing the report.”

On November 3, Kindzierski wrote Wharton again: “I am just checking again about whether you have any feedback on our report.”

In November 2015 Alberta announced a plan to eliminate the province’s 18 coal-fired power plants by 2030. Alberta uses more coal for power production than all other Canadian provinces combined.

Wharton responded on November 19, saying he had discussed Kindzierski’s findings with the mayors of more than 30 municipalities in Alberta who had expressed concern over the province’s plan to shutter coal plants.

“We have had a request from the mayors…to see the report as soon as it is available,” Wharton wrote to Kindzierski. “You may have noticed that these same mayors have been in the media lately expressing concern about the spectre of accelerated coal plant closures and the effects on their communities.”

In a submission to the Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel TransAlta referred to Kindzierski’s research as “commissioned independent work through the University of Alberta” that was done “in response to continued unsubstantiated claims that coal-fired generation was a major contributor to Edmonton’s air quality events, and a rationale for the need to accelerate the retirement of coal units.”

Read, now with the City of Edmonton, said it’s clear TransAlta used Kindzierski’s research to lobby municipalities.

“This wouldn’t be a problem if we knew with certainty the research was unbiased,” Read said. “The real worry I see with this specific case is one of disregarding certain perspectives arbitrarily because of whatever interests that individual might have.”

From a public interest perspective, Read added, air quality issues in Alberta are of high concern.

Kindzierski’s research raises questions about the primacy of the public interest in work bearing the University of Public Health’s branding.

Joe Vipond, a physician and board member of CAPE, said he believes Kindzierski’s research was funded explicitly to find evidence there is no effect of burning coal in Edmonton’s airsheds.

“TransAlta, I would surmise, did not fund Kindzierski’s modeling in some altruistic effort to understand the effects of TransAlta’s own coal plants on Edmonton’s airshed,” Vipond said.

“He has even gone so far as to suggest that instead of air pollution being harmful to human health, it is neutral, or even possibly beneficial. This would be analogous to me, as a physician, to stating smoking is good for you.”  

Last year Vipond launched a complaint against Kindzierski with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) for violating his professional code of conduct as outlined in the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act. The Narwhal has learned the investigation into Kindzierski has been ongoing for over 12 months and relates to complaints made by at least one additional individual.

Vipond said he finds it disturbing Kindzierski participated in TransAlta’s presentations to government as a representative of the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

“It nauseates me to think our institutions have been corrupted in such a manner.”

Sloan d’Entremont, professional engineer and investigator with APEGA, said the organization’s policy is not to comment on ongoing investigations.

”Due to confidentiality reasons, APEGA Investigations is not able to discuss anything related to complaints that are submitted to the Investigations Department,” she said.

Kindzierski TransAlta Correspondence Excerpts by The Narwhal on Scribd

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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