Get Specifics On Air Issues

The low key approach to dirty air has served its time in Nova Scotia

The Issue: Give The Public A Power Plant Plan

Cape Breton Post Editorial
Thurs., Sept. 25, 2003

Some residents of the Point Aconi area recently have criticized Nova Scotia Power Inc. for its silence on the idea of burning tar ponds sludge in its fluidized-bed power generating station there. It's easy to see why the company would not want to become embroiled in a controversy not of its making, especially over something so hypothetical. Besides, the brains at the Head Office had to have seen the likelihood of what in fact has happened: the sludge burning idea appears to have been firmly scotched by local uprising.

But, in addition to all this, we are reminded this week of another reason that NSPI has been happy to lie low. The power company allowing itself to get drawn into the sludge burning question could call unwanted attention to what NSPI is putting up the stacks now in Cape Breton.

An Ontario-based environmental coalition under the umbrella Pollution Watch, using public information, has compiled a list of Nova Scotia's top 10 air polluters. NSPI power plants occupy the top four spots (Lingan, Trenton, Point Tupper and Point Aconi in that order) and hold five places in total (Tuft's Cove sneaks in at a No.10).

According to the compilation, the 600 megawatt coal-fired behemoth at Lingan that produces a quarter of the province's electricity also spewed nearly two million kilograms of air pollutants in 2001, accounting for nearly 43 per cent of Nova Scotia's air pollution from industrial sources. Point Tupper and Point Aconi contributed about 10 per cent each.

(Among Cape Breton installations, the Stora Enso pulp and paper mill at Point Tupper also made the list at No. 9, accounting for 1.3 per cent of the province's total with emissions of 59,822 kg. One other paperniaker in the top 10, Kimberly-Clark, ranked No. 5 with 315,540 kg of emissions, more than five times Stora Enso's amount and neably seven per cent of the provincial total.)

In addition to huge amounts of greenhouse gases, whose contribution to global warming is still controversial, power plant emissions include acids that seed the clouds for acid rain as well as toxic heavy metals such as mercury and other chemicals deemed harmfull to the environment or human health. If you want to know what goes up power plant stacks in Cape Breton, think first about what goes in; a spokesman for technical people associated with the tar ponds cleanup tells us we need think no further than sludge.

Parker Donham, spokesman for Sydney Tar Ponds Agency expressed disappointment earlier this month that local opposition, immune to the persuasions of tar ponds experts, closed off one option "that would enable us to burn the material without creating additional air emissions because we would be displacing a tonne of coal for every tonne of tar ponds material that we burned. Chemically, the materials are very, very similar and the experts assure us that they would produce virtually identical emissions."

So if the people of Point Aconi were alarmed at the prospect of Sydney tar ponds sludge being burned in that plant, why aren't they and indeed people living in the vicinity of any coal or oil-fired generator in the province - in a permanent state of alarm? The disconnect is part of the quirky dynamics that play into public risk perception.

From NSPI's point of view, there's always a danger in stirring this pot. The power company - aided, it seems, by government agencies - has done a remarkable job of keeping the air pollution issue low key. When Cape Breton's coal industry was still alive, unions, politicians and communities were part of the discreet conspiracy, just as few were really much interested in Sydney's industrial pollution until the steel industry was toppling into its grave.

However, NSPI and the Nova Scotia government have gotten by long enough with vague, incomplete and non-specific answers to the power plant emissions question. The public needs to see a comprehensive plan and timetable on power plant emissions, which should also include a rationale for the targets, pacing and cost of improved management at the smokestack.