Looking Back in Despair: Ten Years of Environmental Destruction in Ontario

Air  Pollution: How Much Air Is There?

by Theresa Peluso

Air is all around us, seemingly infinite, and the most precious resource we have – clean air, that is.

The rule of thumb is that humans can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without oxygen.  Given that the average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day, it is essential that the air we breathe be free of pollutants.

The blanket of air that surrounds the Earth consists of many layers, extending up to 10,000 km above sea level. But the only breathable portion of it is the bottom third of the first layer, the troposphere; this portion extends to about 8 km above sea level. Of the various gases in the troposphere, those most essential for sustaining life are nitrogen (roughly 80 percent of the total), oxygen (about 20 percent), and tiny amounts of other gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapour, argon, etc.  Although the percentage of carbon dioxide in the troposphere is minute, the doubling of the concentration of this gas since 1900 has led to global heating, with dangerous repercussions.

The atmosphere is essentially finite, but its composition constantly changes as a result of various ongoing biological, geological, and chemical processes.  Oxygen, for example, is produced not only by forests and other terrestrial vegetation, but also by marine plants, such as phytoplankton, which are estimated to produce more than half the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen. Anthropogenic global heating, whether by triggering massive forest fires or by impeding the growth of phytoplankton, is reducing the ability of these organisms to produce oxygen. Other human activities are also reducing the quality of the air we breathe.

How Clean is Our Air?

Despite the importance of clean air, most Canadians take this precious resource for granted.  According to a 2019 article by Kevin Behan, Deputy Director of Clean Air Partnership

(https://www.cleanairpartnership.org/why-are-we-not-talking-about-air-pollution-in-ontario/), air pollution was in fact a public health crisis in Ontario 20 years ago because of the frequency of smog days (20 smog days in 2004, 53 smog days the following year).  In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) released data that showed that 5,800 Ontarians suffered premature deaths and over 16,000 hospital admissions annually as a result of air pollution.  The OMA assigned a societal economic cost on pollution of $7.8 billion annually for our Province.  Following this report, the Clean Air Partnership worked with municipalities to coordinate the development of smog reduction plans.

The closure of Ontario’s five coal-fired generating stations by 2014 helped considerably to reduce air pollution, as did new provincial regulations to restrict transportation-related emissions.  As a result, Ontario hasn’t seen a smog day since 2013.  Case closed?  Actually, no.

In 2019, Health Canada released a report, which provided estimates of disease rates and premature deaths from anthropogenic air pollution ( http://publications.gc.ca/site/archivee-archived.html?url=http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2019/sc-hc/H144-51-2019-eng.pdf ) .  This report estimates that in Ontario 6,700 people died prematurely, an increase of 1,100 from 2005 numbers.  How is it that, despite reductions in the most common air pollutants in our Province over the last 20 years, the death rate from air pollution remains essentially unchanged?

The main reason is air pollution from vehicles.  Although our Province’s electricity generation is cleaner and heavy industry has decreased, our car and truck engines are larger than ever (cancelling out the advantages of burning more cleanly), and there are a lot more of them.  Add to that increasing urban sprawl and the proliferation of on-line shopping (with concomitant increases in freight transportation).  Essentially, the increasing urbanization of our Province has resulted in more people living near major roads, which is increasing their exposure to these pollutants.

Although the Province’s air-quality monitoring systems appear to provide positive results, these monitoring systems are far from numerous, and, what’s more, several of them are located between communities rather than within communities that are close to the pollution source.

Air Quality Status, according to the Ontario Government

What is the position of our Province on air pollution?  According to the Air Quality in Ontario 2017 Report (https://www.ontario.ca/document/air-quality-ontario-2017-report ), our Province’s air quality has improved during the last 10 years because of significant decreases in some harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) that are emitted by vehicles and industry. Several volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have also decreased significantly during this time period.  Also, measurements of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) (e.g., from smoke, dust, aerosols, etc.) have also noticeably declined.

However, the Report recognizes that ozone and PM2.5, the main constituents of smog, continue to exceed provincial standards in some areas of the Province.

The Report credits provincial initiatives such as updating air standards, regulating industrial emissions, establishing emissions controls for smelters, introducing new regulations for nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions, phasing out coal-fired generating stations, and its Drive-Clean testing of vehicle emissions.

And yet, the Province’s avowed commitment in this Report to “work with the public, First Nations, and industry to drive sustainable actions that better protect air quality and address the unique challenges in communities across Ontario” turns out to be empty words.

What Journalists and Private Citizens Found

A report in the November 30, 2017 issue of the Toronto Star

(https://projects.thestar.com/dirty-dollars-pollution/) provides a shocking exposé of our Province’s lax enforcement of environmental standards.  Starting in 2010, Toronto Star reporters extensively investigated pollution violations by major Canadian industries, the application of environmental regulations, and the amount of government subsidies they receive.  This included pollution violation data from our Province, as well as penalty and prosecution records.

Here are some of the facts they uncovered.

From 2011 to 2014, 20 companies repeatedly breached environmental laws, and their factories violated pollution limits more than 50 times.  One plant released a contaminant nearly 237 times the acceptable limit.  This company was left to resolve the problem on its own instead of having the incident investigated.  Another company, a pulp mill in the Thunder Bay District, violated environmental standards 2,457 times over four years, and was only penalized for violating these standards a few token times, for a total of $324,000 in fines.  During those same four years, this company received more than $113 million in subsidies and rebates from the Ontario and Canadian governments.  This is far from being an anomaly. 

Another Canadian newspaper, the National Observer, describes a situation that happened in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley in February 2017. (https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/04/03/opinion/ontario-must-do-more-protect-communities-air-pollution)

A major petrochemical refinery in Sarnia was responsible for one particular high-flaring incident, in which enormous flames emitted huge plumes of foul-smelling fumes into the air for 10 days. In this particular case, the flare (which occurs when a facility burns off excess gases, often to avoid dangerous pressure situations, and is supposed to happen very rarely) was the result of a malfunction.  It so happens that this “rare” occurrence had already happened an average of three times a year in the previous three years at this very same refinery. 

So what happened next?  Despite the huge public uproar over the February 2017 incident, the Province failed to conduct any air monitoring.  It was made the responsibility of the refinery managers, who did an incompetent job of it. Any increases in SO2 levels noted on nearby industry-operated monitors were not shared with the public.

Then two citizens, a scientist with Ecojustice and a resident of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, both of whom live near the refinery, called on the Ontario government to investigate this incident, and to hold refinery management accountable for potentially exposing people to toxic chemicals.  The result?  On March 11, 2019, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks announced that they would not lay charges.

See https://www.tvo.org/article/sarnia-how-an-environmental-movement-spread-through-ontarios-petrochemical-hub .)

And nothing changed.  Since the February 2017 flaring incident, there have been more than 40 flaring incidents at Chemical Valley facilities, some planned and others not.  Flaring can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days.

These companies are expected to self-report when they violate pollution standards, with basically no consequences because the Province leaves it up to these companies to resolve the problem voluntarily. Environmental advocacy groups say that fines or prosecutions for these violations are rare.  It is basically left to private citizens to collect evidence and file complaints for there to be any hope of accountability.

Jobs?  Or Death?

The excuse is that these companies are often the main employers in many towns and cities, and the main source of jobs and tax revenues.

But look at it this way.  As an Ontario resident, do you think that 6,700 people dying prematurely every year in our Province, at a cost to us, Ontario taxpayers, of nearly $8 billion every year, is an acceptable trade-off for jobs and tax revenues?

In case you need even more proof of the health risks caused by air pollution, this report by the Canadian Cancer Society

( https://www.cancer.ca/en/prevention-and-screening/reduce-cancer-risk/make-informed-decisions/know-your-environment/air-pollution-and-cancer/?region=bc ) describes in detail the sources of air pollution and its devastating effects.  For example, the report explains that as of January 2014, an estimated 370,713 Ontarians had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous 10 years, which is more than double the number of those diagnosed between 1983 and 1993.

It’s Not Just Us

Not surprisingly, agricultural crops also suffer from air pollution, which can visibly damage their leaves, reduce their growth and yield, and cause premature death.  It stands to reason that the visible damage they show is indicative of the damage, both visible and hidden, to other organisms, including animals.

A 2003 study done by OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/01-015.htm) lists the most common airborne pollutants as sulphur dioxide, fluorides, ammonia, particulate matter, and oxidants.

Ozone is the result of a complex reaction involving nitrogen oxides and reactive hydrocarbons (usually from automobile exhaust and fossil fuel combustion). Reduced plant survival as a result of damage by this pollutant to plant leaves, which can occur over large rural areas covering many hundreds of hectares, has been reported and documented in many areas on our continent, including the southwestern and central regions of Ontario.

Sulfur dioxide emissions, which results from the burning of petroleum and smelting of ores containing sulfur, can cause leaf damage.  Fluorides, which are by-products of various processes such as the production of aluminum, steel, phosphate chemicals and fertilizers, ceramics and glass, can also cause leaf damage to many plant species.

Any release of ammonia, usually from careless storage, transportation or application of ammonia fertilizers, can severely injure vegetation in the immediate vicinity. The deposit of particulate matter on crop leaves can inhibit the normal respiration and photosynthesis processes within the leaf, and adversely alter the chemistry of the soil where the crops are grown.  Think about what damage these pollutants cause to other living organisms.

Ontario, Open for Business?  At What Cost?

As mentioned in the most recent Green Talk articles, last December the Ontario Government passed Bill 132, which should actually be titled Worse for People, Worse for the Environment Act, as they have given carte blanche to industrial polluters to freely despoil our natural resources, including clean air.  At the same time, the Ontario Government have eliminated the Office of the Environmental Commissioner (to stifle public awareness of the resulting environmental damage from Bill 132). Given everything we know about air pollution, why is our Province doing this to us and our families?  If only because we pay the taxes that help to keep things running, why are our lives being treated as expendable?

Furthermore, many of the natural systems that clean our air are being lost to development and degradation:  we can no longer lay claim to the bounteous forests, abundant wetlands, and healthy soil that existed prior to the arrival of European settlers.

To add yet another insult to injury, in April of last year, the Ontario government voted to repeal its Toxics Reduction Act (TRA) by 2021, and halt some aspects of the Act immediately on the pretext that this law hurts business and duplicates existing federal requirements – which is false.   (See https://environmentaldefence.ca/2019/04/04/premier-ford-scraps-ontario-toxics-law/).  The TRA, which requires businesses to report all uses of toxic chemicals in their operations, as well as plans to reduce the toxins used, was extremely effective in reducing human exposure to these harmful chemicals.

In the space of one year, between 2015 and 2016, this Act resulted in reductions in the use, creation and addition of more than 175,000 tonnes of toxins by Ontario businesses. None of these reductions were mandated by Federal toxics rules.  Why would the Province change a policy that improved the health of Ontario residents? I guess it’s that Jobs-or-? trade-off again.

Can We Change the Ending?

Scientists and other environmental experts are warning us that humans have less than 10 years left to limit a climate change catastrophe.  Many of the actions we need to take to reduce carbon emissions will also reduce air pollution:  walking and cycling instead of driving, buying an electric vehicle, making our houses energy efficient, limiting our consumption of goods, supporting bona fide environmental businesses, buying food produced locally and organically and reducing food waste, vacationing locally (as most of us have been doing this year), eating less meat, and pushing our elected representatives at all levels of government to enact legislation to actively protect our natural environment – and by extension, our health.  By teaming up with our family members, friends, neighbours and environmental groups, we can push back against the corporation-centric decision-making that is so prevalent – because the health of our community and our planet comes first.