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ENVIRO LAW: Reducing local air pollution in Ontario

Tuesday, September 18th 2007 1:37:52pm

To the Editor:

Here is the next bi-monthly column (September 15, 2007) by Environmental Law Specialist Dianne Saxe.  These columns are available for publishing at no charge, provided Dr. Saxe is cited as the author. She can be contacted at 416-962-5882 or admin@envirolaw.com.

For more information, see www.envirolaw.com.

For previous columns, contact Brent Kulba at 416-972-7401.


ENVIRO LAW:  Reducing local air pollution in Ontario

Air pollution is wide-spread across Ontario, coming from many sources and moving with large air masses from one region to the next.  It’s resulting in health effects, including cancer and respiratory illnesses like asthma.  

Last year, more than 5000 premature deaths were attributed to poor air quality, in Ontario alone, and there were almost 9 billion dollars in health care and related costs, not to mention global warming.

Many of our day-to-day activities are air pollution sources, such as driving, heating our homes, and cleaning with various chemicals. So are the activities of some small businesses, like auto shops and dry cleaners, as well as some larger businesses and factories.

If you’re concerned about local air pollution, there is information at www.pollutionwatch.org. It uses data from the federal government's National Pollutant Release Inventory to tell you the major point sources of air pollution in your area.  Unfortunately, there is no good data yet on local pollutants from cars, trucks and other mobile sources, service stations, dry cleaners and other area sources.

If you have concerns about a particular polluter in your community, here are some things to try:

• Write the company, or ask a local group to do it, requesting information on their emissions and on what they are doing to reduce them. If they make promises, follow them up;
• Get as many people as possible to call, write and email the Ontario Ministry of the Environment about the polluter. Express concerns, request information on inspections and air emission testing, and request additional health monitoring, if necessary. Ask to be notified if they apply for any permits; and
• Watch the Environmental Bill of Rights registry for postings by the polluter, www.ebr.gov.on.ca, and comment on them. Object if a company proposal will make their emissions worse instead of better.

Municipalities have some power to regulate local air pollution, especially on the noise and odour issues that the provinces try to avoid. For example, they can ban the sale or use of particularly toxic devices if there is satisfactory evidence that they pose a material hazard. This is the same power that many municipalities have used to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides, but it could be used much more broadly “to achieve the legitimate interests of the municipality and its inhabitants.” In extreme cases, the Medical Officer of Health also has some rarely-used powers under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

Municipalities can also do a great deal for local air quality by protecting and planting trees; regulating traffic (including idling); promoting transit; and by everything they do in land-use planning. They can also reduce the emissions from their own operations, including those from waste management facilities.

The provinces are responsible for regulating most stationary sources of air pollution, like dry cleaners and factories. Every stationary source of air pollution is required to have a certificate of approval, and tighter emission standards are slowly being phased in. Provinces such as Ontario are also responsible for regulating vehicles that spew pollutants because they are out of repair.

The federal government is responsible for negotiations with our U.S. neighbour, the source of half of all our air pollution. It is also responsible for our woefully inadequate aircraft, ship and vehicle emission standards.

Air pollution, crossing multiple boarders, neighbourhoods and levels of government, is among the most significant environmental issues in Ontario.  It requires action not just in local communities, but from all levels of government and the U.S.


Dianne Saxe, one of Canada's leading environmental lawyers, is a Certified Specialist in Environmental Law and member of the Ontario Bar Association Environmental Section Executive.  She also holds one of Canada's only Doctorates of Jurisprudence (PhD) in environmental law.

Click for high-resolution photo.