Tougher pollution model eyed for Hamilton
Combined impact of emissions measured
The province is floating tougher air pollution standards for Hamilton to recognize the combined effect of industrial emissions — particularly, high levels of cancer-causing chemicals like benzene.
Environmental advocates have long lobbied the province to regulate local industrial emissions based on cumulative impact rather than via individual factory limits. Ontario’s environment commissioner called for such regulation in Hamilton as far back as 2008.
Now, a new policy posted online for feedback proposes forcing new or expanding manufacturers to do more to control emissions if they are located in newly mapped-out “pollution hotspots” in industry-heavy Hamilton or Sarnia.
In Hamilton, the hotspots are in or around the industrial central and east city, including what appear to be some residential neighbourhoods like the beach strip.
“The framework is excellent, as long as we keep moving forward,” said outgoing Clean Air Hamilton chair Denis Corr, who noted the proposed new rules will initially apply to concentrations of only two chemicals: benzene and benzo(a)pyrene.
He acknowledged those chemicals are “scary” because they are known to cause cancer.
But Corr argued “overall risk” to residents is higher from the combined impact of all pollutants, like particulate, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.
“We need to keep applying this process to other pollutants,” said Corr, who has tested for those contaminants at street-level in several Hamilton neighbourhoods.
Environment Hamilton head Lynda Lukasik agreed, also noting the new policy won’t force change on existing industrial plants unless they expand.
“It’s good that they’re publicly recognizing our airshed is already overtaxed with contaminants and that they’re moving away from stack-by-stack regulation,” she said. “But we’ve got a whole mess of stuff that gets released into our air in Hamilton. The hope would be this is just the starting point.”
The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change’s online explanation of the proposal says “multi-source modelling” used to evaluate pollutant concentrations in several cities identified benzene and benzo(a)pyrene as “the two most significant carcinogens,” particularly in Hamilton-Burlington and Sarnia’s chemical valley.
(A citizen Environmental Bill of Rights application from 2014 also requested a “pollution hot spot” study specifically for the two cities.)
Benzene is emitted by a variety of industries as well as in vehicle exhaust; benzo(a) pyrene is often associated with coke-making for steel as well as coal tar manufacture.
Data posted along with the policy proposal shows average annual air concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene in 2014 exceeded the province’s target level for acceptable health risk in several locations in Hamilton.
That includes 100 times the acceptable ambient air quality criteria (AAQC) at a monitoring station on Eastport Drive, the highest level recorded across Ontario. (AAQC refers to the concentration of a contaminant in air considered acceptable to protect human health or the environment.)
Hamilton also accounts for 70 per cent of all benzo(a)pyrene emissions reported by Ontario plants via the National Pollutant Release Inventory. For benzene, it’s 38 per cent.
The new policy would require escalating “management actions” by new or expanding companies based on how bad the cumulative pollution is in particular geographical areas.
For example, pollutant concentrations considered slightly higher than acceptable might simply trigger extra monitoring. But factories seeking to set up or expand in areas with the worst air quality could be required to invest in particular pollution control technology.
Measuring cumulative pollution impact isn’t easy, as the city itself has found. Public health set out to create a Hamilton-specific “airshed model” in 2014, but more than two years later, the model is still being tweaked.
Councillors for the two-chemical “hot spot” areas said the changing policy is welcome — if late — but enforcement is key.
“We’ve recognized for a long time we live in a compromised airshed. But we are limited in what we can do about it as a city,” said Chad Collins, who along with ward neighbours Sam Merulla and Matthew Green vocally opposed a recent trash-to-gas plant proposal on the harbour because of air quality concerns.
“The bottom line is the rules have to mean something,” added Merulla, who pointed to ongoing resident frustrations with steel industry pollution burps and fallout. “If you don’t enforce, the changes are meaningless.”
The public has until Feb.7 to comment on the province’s new proposal.