New oilsands testing uncovers higher levels of air pollution

      Comments Off on New oilsands testing uncovers higher levels of air pollution
EDMONTON – Warnings about higher levels of air pollution in the oilsands have emerged in a new provincial air quality report that calls for further investigation into possible pollution sources.

The report shows polluting emissions in 2012 did not surpass the legal limit set out in the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. (Just two substances, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, were measured). But air pollution rose to levels two and three on a scale of four at several monitoring sites, mostly between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay.

Level four is the legal limit set to protect human health and allow for economic growth.

“It’s important to understand the triggers are well below the (legal limit), so we are not anywhere near an issue where will have health issues for humans or our biodiversity,” Environment Minister Robin Campbell said Wednesday.

Campbell said he’s pleased with the report, and the warnings it contains give plenty of time to consult with industry and local municipalities.

The legislation requires the government to take action when warning levels are triggered. His department is now trying to pinpoint the pollution sources.

“The system is working, the triggers are in place and we’ve been proactive in … working with the industry,” Campbell said.

Identifying sources will help determine if companies will be asked to take steps to reduce pollution, according to reports obtained by the Journal.

“I don’t look on this as having to penalize them, but rather work with them to come up with a solution for responsible use of resources,” Campbell said.

The 2012 air pollution data are 18 months old, but it is the first test of province’s new regional approach — to monitor pollution arising from all oilsands projects together, called cumulative effects.

The worst pollution occurred near two large upgraders, the report shows. Sulphur dioxide emissions hit level three at two stations, a level below the legal limit set by the Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives (AAAQO).

Five other sites recorded sulphur dioxide at level two above the clean air norm, according to 2012 data.

“There should be no or very few exceedances of the hourly AAAQO at the trigger for level three,” says the report, called Status of Air Quality Management Response.

So far, the environment department’s investigation has concluded no natural events such as forest fires contributed to the level three pollution, the report said.

Increased oilsands production would not necessarily mean more pollution because new technology is cleaning up emissions, Campbell said.

But the Alberta Energy Regulator must keep an eye on pollution levels when approving new projects, he said.

If a new project would increase pollution to hit the legal limit, it could be delayed or modified, or new technology could be required.

The province devised the new monitoring system after the oilsands came under fire for poor environmental performance and after scientific studies in 2010 showed pollution was not naturally occurring, as the province had maintained for years.

Massive oilsands upgraders are the source of 90 per cent of sulphur dioxide emissions, and the big trucks and fleets of buses also contribute.

Sulphur dioxide emissions may have gone down since 2012; last year Syncrude installed scrubbers to take sulphur out of emissions that go up the big stack, department officials noted.

Updated figures for 2013 pollution levels are expected in December, according to department officials.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions also hit level two at five monitoring stations, and near Fort McMurray were high during the morning and evening rush hours.

Environmentalists raised a red flag about growing air pollution in the region at 2013 hearings on the proposed Jackpine mine expansion.

Forecasts showed the huge project could take sulphur dioxide pollution over the legal limits. That project is awaiting approval.

While the Athabasca regional plan was approved in September 2012, major sections are still incomplete, including the biodiversity framework that would protect wildlife. Those limits will be ready in 2015.

The province’s legal air quality threshold follows the AAAQO, which “is intended to provide protection of the environment and human health to the extent that is technically and economically feasible, and is socially and politically acceptable,” according to the air quality framework.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal