October 22, 2008

Canadian cities not getting the truth on their air quality

Cities not getting true air quality story

Right: Smoggy Montreal

CANADA - The federal and provincial governments are lulling Ontario residents into a false sense of security about the level of pollution they're breathing in on city streets, the province's environment watchdog warned today.

The air quality city dwellers actually endure can differ ``significantly" from the readings provided by the province and Environment Canada because they don't factor in street-level pollution, Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said in his annual report.

Ontario's monitoring stations, which are used by the federal government to provide its Air Quality Health Index, are located well away from traffic and other sources of pollution, he said.

Many residents rely on those readings – called the Air Quality Index, or AQI, in Ontario – on a daily basis to determine whether its safe to go outside, he said.

In effect, the current system may be "inadvertently enticing" people to expose themselves to inferior air quality because they're under the false impression that the air in city streets is safe to breathe, his report said.

"I have data to show that the AQI will say that the air quality is clean in Toronto today, and down there on Bay Street, it's very poor," Miller said.

"It's ironic because Ontario actually was ahead of the game 20 years ago when we brought in AQI, on a world basis. Now we're far behind."

Cities like Paris and London have a regional warning system and a street-level system, which provides a better picture of the air quality in key problem areas, Miller said.

Environment Canada provides air quality reports for the provinces and territories, and an Air Quality Health Index – which combines the quality of air with known health effects – for Saint John and dozens of cities in Ontario and British Columbia, according to the agency's website.

Some Ontario municipalities like Halton have plans to put in their own street-level monitoring stations, Miller added.

Ontario environment officials appear to be "well aware" of this weakness, but lack the resources to correct it, Miller said.

Air pollution is linked to an estimated 9,500 deaths each year and its effects on health and the environment costs the province millions of dollars each year, his report said.

But there were no promises to fix the system from Ontario's environment minister.

"If there are some suggestions that he's making with respect as to where these monitoring stations should be set up, we are certainly going to take a look at that, because I think the reporting that we do should be as accurate as possible," John Gerretsen said Tuesday, ahead of the report's official release.

But air quality reporting isn't the only provincial program that's not doing its job to protect people's health and the environment, Miller said.

His report also slammed Ontario's environmental assessment process, which he says isn't screening new projects as carefully as the public has been led to expect.

The province has gradually "whittled away" at the legislation for 30 years, leaving it "in shambles," Miller said.

"Increasingly, in many kinds of environment assessment process, it's a pre-determined 'yes' and there's no way to stop it," he said.

Right: Smoggy Toronto

Mining projects in Ontario are currently exempt from the process, said Justin Duncan of Ecojustice, a non-profit environmental group.

"The Victor diamond mine, for instance. It's going to be a massive pit in the ground, and no one assessed it," he said.

Miller's report also recommends that the government take steps to protect biodiversity in the province and its fresh water.

Ontario has an increasingly limited water supply and has experienced some of the driest conditions on record over the last decade, Miller said.

The government should raise the low fees it charges to companies who take Ontario water, which would encourage conservation and offset the cost of its water management programs, he said.

The report also concludes that the decline in biodiversity has reached a crisis state, but the government hasn't been studying the problem in a comprehensive way.

Detailed studies are instead being done by not-for-profit groups, many of which have spent years documenting species' decline, it said.

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