Hamilton eyes following Oakville’s lead on regulating fine dust
Brian McHattie says he hopes there will come a time when Queen’s Park views fine dust emissions from industry and other sources as a serious health threat, much like smoking in public places and the use of cosmetic pesticides.
But because that day appears to be way’s off yet, the Hamilton councillor is pushing the city to follow the Town of Oakville’s lead by clamping down on what is known as PM 2.5 – particulate matter, or dust, that is 2.5 microns in size or smaller.
The microscopic pollutants are of particular concern because they are absorbed by the lungs, causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Oakville enacted a bylaw targeting major emitters of the fine dust three years ago after its Environmental Bill of Rights application for a provincial regulation was turned down – a bid prompted by a study showing its southeast area had a “challenged airshed.”
Hamilton councillors took a tentative step in the same direction in August when they unanimously backed McHattie’s resolution directing staff to explore a similar bylaw here.
The Ward 1 councillor says such a bylaw would see the city work with major emitters to help them find ways to cut fine dust.
It would also be a start in looking at air pollution holistically and recognizing there is a cumulative impact if everyone is allowed to pollute up to a maximum level, he says.
The latest Clean Air Hamilton report estimates 186 people died from air pollution last year, with another 395 admitted to hospital for related respiratory problems and 322 for cardiovascular ailments.
The report identifies PM 2.5’s as being “more strongly linked to health impacts” – particularly cardiovascular ones – than the larger PM 10 dust the province does regulate.
“From a health perspective, it’s well understood, from the family doctors and from the public health officials, that PMs are a huge problem, whether it’s PM 10 or PM 2.5,” McHattie says.
“Everyone’s emitting, but no one’s developed a model looking at the cumulative impact and then the health-related concerns of everybody polluting at a certain level,” he says.
“You’d think that if you looked at the cumulative model you would reduce the allowed pollution levels from the emitters, recognizing that they’re all additive – and synergistic in some cases, probably.”
While initiated to address fine dust, the Oakville bylaw requires any facility to file an emission report if it exceeds federal reporting thresholds for any of five health-risk air pollutants.
In the case of PM 2.5, facilities emitting one kilogram or more per year must submit a report, but only those exceeding 300 kg are considered major emitters.
The latter must apply for approval of their emissions, a process requiring them to submit reports outlining the nature of their facility, their impact on the airshed and any measures they can take to reduce emissions.
The application is then reviewed by an expert. If the review determines the emissions are likely to cause a significant health effect, town councillors have three options: they can refuse the application outright; approve it on the condition the facility commits to cutting emissions by 25 per cent over five years; or approve it on the grounds that doing so is in the public interest.
The process costs major emitters $25,000, including a $5,000 administration fee, but council can decide to refund a portion if the town’s costs are less.
So far, 139 facilities have submitted reports to the town, with only six falling into the category of major emitters – most notably the Ford plant, which pumps out an annual average of 7,752 kg of fine dust.
Cindy Toth, the town’s director environmental policy, says four of the major emitters are going through the application process, with the two others proposing to make improvements this year to lower their emissions below the federal reporting threshold.
She says she can’t disclose the latter companies because a report on their proposed upgrades has yet to go to council.
“The intent of the bylaw is to try to make it clear to any facilities operating in Oakville that there’s an expectation to do the best job possible to reduce emissions,” Toth says. “It’s a very rationale-based and methodical process.”
Toth says the town used a provision of the Municipal Act that allows it to protect the public’s health as the basis for the bylaw.
She says although some businesses initially criticized the bylaw as unnecessary and an impediment to operating in Oakville, no one has challenged it and a number of facilities are reporting their emissions even though they’re not required to do so.
“They want to be open and transparent and disclose their operations because they are very environmentally aware,” Toth says. “This fits in with the way they like to operate.”
Lynda Lukasik, executive director Environment Hamilton, says she welcomes McHattie’s bid for a fine-dust bylaw here because there is no legally enforceable provincial standard.
But she says it will have to be customized to Hamilton if it is to address her non-profit organization’s concerns about fine dust from construction sites and street “drag out” – the muck left behind by trucks leaving industrial plants.
“To me, that’s low-hanging fruit. It should be pretty straightforward to put some rules in place, either in another bylaw or as a component integrated into this one,” she says.
In rejecting Oakville’s request for a provincial regulation on PM 2.5, the Ministry of the Environment insisted Ontario is already managing the problem, including through tougher air standards, Drive Clean vehicular emissions testing and the “ramping down of coal fired” power plants.
But it did acknowledge there is no safe level for the dust, whose “health impacts include decreased lung function, increases in respiratory stress, and reduced life expectancy due to cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality.”
Lukasik said she can sympathize with Oakville because she’s received a similar response to her efforts to get the province to penalize harmful “spills to air,” much as it does for spills to water and land.
She says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency not only regulates PM 2.5, but introduced more stringent standards last year, so Ontario can’t claim acting on the dust will put it at a competitive disadvantage.
“It’s a pretty odd thing that the province hasn’t done this,” she says. “Why aren’t we talking about it, given all of the emerging (health impact) understandings?”