Laundry isn't the only thing being hung out to dry this summer in Smogtown. Take Toronto's east-end neighbourhoods, which have always been our industrial ashtray.
In the bad old 80s, residential backyards in south Riverdale had to have their lead-laced soil removed, and the Commissioner Street incinerator was blithely burning garbage.
And while we can't be sure that the dust on Riverdalian stereo speakers isn't still laced with lead, locals also have to deal with the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant to the southeast, a grand contributor to the generally crappy local air quality.
So, faced with a summer of smog days and a stack of reports showing east-enders to have the highest levels of respiratory illness in the city, who can blame them for getting increasingly grouchy about the Portlands Energy Centre (PEC)?
The latest dust-up over the controversial gas-fired electricity generator being built next to the Leslie Spit occurred late last month, when 11 of 15 neighbourhood reps sitting on the Community Liaison Committee (CLC) set up by PEC at the behest of the Ministry of the Environment staged a mass walkout.
According to member Dennis Findlay of the Portlands Action Committee, "We came to the conclusion we were being used as window dressing. [PEC] wasn't seriously considering anything we were bringing forward."
The committee, struck at the beginning of the year, was formed in lieu of a full environmental assessment by an MOE directive and was composed of reps from local enviro and health orgs, neighbourhood ratepayers, local business owners and supposedly non-affiliated residents as well as pols and city advisors.
The only firm guideline the MOE set was that PEC and the residents should hash out terms of reference for the committee. No mention of what should be in them. Nevertheless, PEC and the committee, perhaps surprising themselves, hashed out a document that boldly declared that the purpose of the committee was "to provide meaningful community input into the design, construction and operation of the PEC for the purpose of mitigating the health and environmental impacts."
Wow, sounds like a good start. Residents began rolling up their sleeves, ready to get involved. CLC members' concerns ranged from stack height, bird-friendly windows, landscaping and parking to emissions projections and assurances that PEC would not fire up on heavy smog days.
But the tipping point came when PEC appeared to back away from an earlier agreement to draft a dispute resolution mechanism. By the committee's third meeting in late June, things had gotten bogged down, and 11 frustrated members walked. Left behind are four members half of them not exactly disinterested parties.
One is Toronto-Danforth Liberal candidate in the next provincial election Joyce Rowlands (yep, former mayor June Rowland's daughter), and another is bidding on telecom contracts at PEC. (He later tells me he's leaving the committee, too, due to a conflict of interest and the committee's general dysfunctionality.)
PEC spokespeople say it's not their fault that things fell apart. "There is a misunderstanding about what the CLC can and can't do," PEC's Ted Gruetzner tells me. "The ministry doesn't give much direction on the CLC."
He's right, actually, and this is where the trouble begins. The MOE directive, which, other than telling PEC to form the CLC and agree on its terms of reference, is so waffly it says virtually nothing. This is what we get instead of an enviro assessment?
It suggests that a dispute resolution mechanism could be included, but doesn't insist on it. It directs PEC to ensure that the CLC has "reasonable access to resources and information," but what is that supposed to mean an encyclopedia and a typewriter?
"We decided we'd test the waters and started suggesting landscaping changes," says Paul Young, health promoter at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and a committee member. "That's when PEC started to say that anything involving permit approval wasn't on the table for discussion."
Which covers just about everything. CLC members, in the main, concluded that continuing to meet would be a waste of time.
Ministry officials, for their part, have washed their hands of the whole affair and told PEC and the CLC to work it out themselves. In answer to queries about the breakdown, MOE spokesperson John Steele says only that the terms of reference should "govern the committee's activities" and that PEC is "actively looking for new members to fill the vacant spots on the committee." But what if PEC isn't interested in following the terms of reference it agreed to?
The actions of former committee members reflect a community sentiment wildly opposed to PEC. The company's own Ecological Effects Assessment shows that in the worst-case scenario on a heavy smog day, emissions from the plant, when combined with pre-existing smog would push the count right to the provincial health limit a limit many scientists say is too high anyway.
Nonetheless, when the city of Toronto did its own modelling studies, staffers concluded that while PEC will be the number-one source of air pollution in the city at stack level, by the time emissions hit ground level they will have dissipated to such an extent that the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide will be equivalent to those of nine to 13 residential gas furnaces.
The NDP's enviro critic and Toronto-Danforth rep, Peter Tabuns, doesn't want to comment on the science of this claim, but he has his doubts. "On really hot days down at the port, I've seen smog act like a ceiling and watched emissions from the Ashbridges plant get trapped, unable to disperse into the atmosphere," he says. "I think those studies are assuming an awful lot of dissipation."
But surprisingly, Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and a Riverdale resident, shares the city's minimizing assessment. "We think the project is great. The sooner it is up and running, the sooner we can reduce coal," he says. "PEC's impact will be a net reduction in pollution."
The facility, says Gibbons, will dramatically increase Toronto's security of supply in case of major outages. "Right now we only get 2 per cent of the city's electricity from local sources. PEC will bump that up to over 10 per cent," he says. (By comparison, New York City gets 80 per cent of its electricity locally.)
"If we don't build this, we'll be burning more coal and using nukes," he says. "I wish that weren't the choice, but it is."