With summer looming, Torontoniansare sure to get reacquainted with the foulness of our air. But we aren’t the only ones. And now our downwind American friends, led by New York’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, have taken us aside and suggested we deal with the unpleasant odour.Earlier this month, Spitzer, along with two other states and over 40 health and environment groups, made the point by asking a NAFTA agency, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), to investigate Canada’s failure to enforce environmental laws against the province’s coal-fired power plants. The plants, run by government-owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG), routinely spew out massive amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury.
The Ontario government responded in less than mature fashion. Environment Minister Chris Stockwell said Spitzer should be more concerned about the U.S. Midwest’s own dirty coal-fired plants. In other words, he said, “Your air stinks, too.”
A less petulant, more constructive reply – and plan of action – would have served Ontarians as well as downwind New Yorkers, New Englanders and Maritimers better. Spitzer was simply telling Ontario’s political leaders something the rest of us had already noticed. Canadian groups like the Sierra Club of Canada, Ontario Clean Air Alliance and Ontario Medical Association have been asking for action on the foul air for years, from both current premier Ernie Eves and his predecessor, Mike Harris.
Even federal environment minister David Anderson has suggested Ontario deal with its poor hygiene.
And in August 2002 the Sierra Legal Defence Fund formally asked, on behalf of the Sierra Club of Canada, that Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment investigate OPG for the same emissions of mercury – a potent neurotoxin – that Spitzer is now complaining about. After initial delays, the ministry said its investigation would be done in January 2003. We’re still waiting.
And the Ontario government has forgotten that Spitzer did indeed target dirty Midwestern plants in previous legal actions. Ontario is simply next on his list. Spitzer knows that tighter border security will not protect New York residents from these unwanted travellers that’s why the CEC submission became necessary.
The allegation that Ontario is soft on polluters will come as no surprise to the CEC. A few weeks ago, its annual report, Taking Stock, found an increase in Canadian air emissions that is largely attributable to a single facility, OPG’s Nanticoke generating station on Lake Erie, just upwind from Buffalo, where Spitzer announced his petition. This plant reported an increase of 3,000 tonnes of pollutant releases to air in the period 1998-2000.
Ontario’s environment minister might have benefited from reading the CEC report, given its finding that U.S. air pollution has actually been declining.
Human lungs, whether on the Canadian or U.S. side of the border, have the same affinity for clean air. But as the New York petition makes clear, it’s not only our lungs that are being compromised. What goes up OPG stacks regularly comes back down to contaminate water bodies.
Mercury, for instance, finds its way into fish and then into the humans who eat them. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which advises Congress, says 60,000 American children may be born each year with neurological problems as the result of exposure to methylmercury in the womb. And 99 per cent of the fish consumption restrictions for inland lakes in the Ontario government’s own Guide To Eating Sport Fish are the consequence of mercury contamination.
Ontario could have saved itself from further international embarrassment by announcing that it plans to do something about its problem. There are various options, including an effective energy conservation strategy, substantial investment in renewable energy and conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas. Unfortunately, the response has been uninspiring: reliance on coal-fired power has increased dramatically over the last eight years, and the recent hydro price freeze was untied to conservation incentives.
Most importantly, the province’s promise to close coal-fired plants will not take effect until 2015. In other words, not after the next election or the next or the next after that. Few of us can hold our breath that long.
Albert Koehl is a lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.