Canadian Air Pollution Monitoring

by Dave Stevens

“Out of Kilter: BC Pollution Monitors,” (Summer 2010), looked at errors in pollution data in the BC provin­cial monitoring network. There are similar issues on the national scene. 

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, revised in1999 (CEPA99), is the flagship federal environmental legislation in Canada.

CEPA99 requires the ministers of Health and Environment to collect data to “establish a na­tional inventory of releases of pollutants…” That inventory is the National Pollutant Release Inventory, the NPRI.

Every year a notice is published in the Canada Gazette requiring “persons” to report on how much pollution they have released into the environment in Canada. The data is available online and can be searched by area, by industry, and in other ways. There is a lot of data there and it is gener­ally expanding over time.

A standing body, the Working Group on Substances (the WG), meets several times a year to discuss what to report on and under what circumstances. This group has many members and committees, industries, jurisdictions, and health and environmental non-governmental organi­zations (ENGOs) among them. The ENGO WG members annually prepare reports to Environment Canada. Environ­ment Canada reviews the reports and uses them as advice to decide what requirements to make in next year's notice.

There are many potential and actual problems with self-reporting of pollution by polluters and the NPRI suf­fers from all of them..

Avoiding Liability

If there is any actual or potential liability associated with pollution, then it would clearly be in the best interest of the polluters to understate the extent of their contribution. Against this might be the consideration that a responsible party in the corporation (that's the “person”) must sign off on the report, and that the Act carries potential criminal penalties that could be applied to those reporters. But, of course, this possibility is mostly nonsense, to use polite lan­guage.

There are just too many loopholes to establish legal re­sponsibility for false or misleading information. For exam­ple, most reporting firms hire consultants to prepare their reports. And the methods used by the reporter, whoever it is, are rarely as direct and unambiguous as measuring what comes out of the stack or outfall. Rather, estimates are made based on production data, process data, or emissions factors.

Emissions Factors

Emissions factors offer an especially rich field for in­terpretation, interpretive applicability, and out-of-date sci­ence. The idea is that you don't measure pollution in a direct way. Instead, a conversion factor is applied to some aspect of operations to get your estimate of emissions. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published many emissions factors in their AP-42 document. The full document runs to many pages and is supported by many more pages of background science documents. This is nec­essarily the case in a highly litigious environment such as the US where large amounts of money are potentially at stake. But it complicates matters so that a straightforward analysis of the adequacy of pollution reports based on emis­sions factors is often not possible.

If the staff at Environment Canada's Pollution Data Branch are underfunded, understaffed and overworked, it might be that some dodgy reporting gets by. Further, some of the nastier pollutants, such as Volatile Organic Com­pounds (VOCs), are a wildly toxic soup of up to hundreds of different kinds of chemicals. If the burden of providing a detailed analysis is held to be unreasonable, or if the re­porting units or thresholds are controversial (and, hey, con­troversy-on-demand is cheaper than compliance), well then the WG or its subcommittees can argue for a very long time about thresholds and detailed reporting. And it does.

Thresholds for Reporting

EC's rule of thumb is that if it has reports from the 20% of teh largest emitters, it has 80% of the pollution data and that this affords a suitable basis for management of risks to the health of Canadians and to the environment. Various thresholds based on size, industry, and activity eliminate many who need not report.

But is that a suitable basis? In the April 2009 Journal of the Air Waste Management Association, Dr. Judi Kryzanowski reported on her study of small facilities in the upstream oil and gas (UOG) industry in northeast BC. After examining the consequences of ignoring small facilities whose collective emissions are substantial, she concludes that the strategy of using a minimum size threshold to exclude small emitters has been a mistake:

“An analysis of official emissions data and reporting policies showed that inventories severely underestimate UOG emission sources. Industry-based emis­sion estimates were combined with a con­ventional government-based emissions inventory to give a more comprehensive dataset for the region. When CAC sourc­es were considered inclusively and cumulatively across the region’s landscape…. Emissions of the CAC (criteria air contaminant) sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds approximately doubled, reaching intensities comparable to urban areas. “ [italics mine]

And again, “An analysis of uncertainty and reporting policy suggests that inventory omissions are not limited to the study area and that Canadian pollutant emissions are systematically underestimated. The omissions suggest that major changes in reporting procedures are needed in Cana­da if true estimates of annual pollutant emissions are to be documented.”

Basically, she says the current threshold scheme does not afford a robust basis for risk management actions.

Quality Assurance

The Commissioner for Sustainable Development and the Environment (CSDE) is an officer of Parliament in the federal Office of the Auditor General. In fall 2009, the Commissioner released an investigation into the quality of National Pollutant Release Inventory data.

The Commissioner “expected that Environment Cana­da would have quality assurance systems and practices in place, including those applicable to the accuracy, complete­ness, understandability, coherence and reliability, timeli­ness, and accessibility of the information held in the Na­tional Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).”

Why does it matter? “Pollution tracking and environ­mental monitoring are critical activities, given the potential for serious and irreversible damage to human health and the environment from pollution.”

What did the Commissioner find? “The Department [EC] is unable to assess the accuracy and completeness of the data, nor does it adequately state the limitations of the data so that users understand its nature …This has a critical impact on the relia­bility of comparisons and trend analysis” [italics mine]. The Commissioner noted that Environment Canada had reviewed and agreed with his recommendations. The quality of the data is inadequate as a basis for precautionary decision making.

Deadly Consequences

In August 2008, the Canadian Medi­cal Association (CMA) published “No Room to Breathe,” a national estimate of the illness costs of air pollution. It's hair-raising stuff, pointing to 21,000 deaths annually and many more less severe effects. And that esti­mate is known to be based significantly on underreported and underestimated data.

What, if anything, will Environment Canada do about this? In its conference call in June 2010 with the Working Group on Substances, François Lavallée set out the depart­ment's work plan, developed to address the shortcomings cited in the CESD report. It's early days yet, but there is some reason to hope that there will be improvements in the quality of NPRI data quality.

The problems with the NPRI make reasoned decision making about pollution very badly compromised. These problems are well understood and are not accidents. They are the result of priority setting that has for years progres­sively compromised the capacity of the government to fulfil its obligation to act to protect the health of Canadians. The CMA report sets out the deadly consequences.


Dave Stevens is a self-employed computer geek and amateur carpen­ter. From time to time he advises Environment Canada on how to handle toxic emissions. They don’t take the advice but they pay anyway.

[From WS September/October 2010]

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