Feds to cut air-pollution monitoring team

Published by Postmedia News on Friday May 25, 2012

OTTAWA – The federal government plans to break up a team of Environment Canada smokestack specialists that played a key role working with enforcement officers and industry to crack down on toxic pollution, a Postmedia News investigation has revealed.

Details of the cuts emerged through a series of leaked documents and interviews that revealed members of the Ottawa-based group of scientists were told their current roles would be eliminated over the next year.

Environment Minister Peter Kent declined an interview request from Postmedia News on Friday about cuts in his department, but a spokesman said the department was shifting toward using outside sources of research to avoid “duplication” on information that “already is obtained from credible sources.” One month earlier, his office declined to comment about cuts to the team, explaining that it couldn’t answer questions because of “privacy” concerns and “consideration” for the department’s employees.

While Kent has acknowledged in a recent report tabled in Parliament that budget cuts were putting his department’s scientific expertise and capacity to protect Canadians at risk, Environment Canada has said budget cuts will not have any impact on its core services.

The Union of Environment Workers has described the emissions research and measurement unit as a unique team that provides expertise that is not available from other sources.

It consists of seven specialists who travel around Canada, measuring emissions and analyzing data either to help industry, or provide evidence for enforcement officers that want to lay charges. They recently conducted research supporting federal efforts to produce a credible monitoring plan for pollution from Alberta’s oilsands sector, contributing to a chapter on air quality.

The team’s research and analysis has also been used to support development of standards and assessment of pollution sources, analyze effectiveness of pollution-reduction technologies, as well as to strengthen inventories of pollution from different sources.

In terms of measurement, the team would monitor pollution, including cancer-causing emissions, from sources such as hospital incinerators, crematoriums, boilers, smelting furnaces, landfills and coal-fired power generating stations.

But Environment Canada Deputy Minister Paul Boothe told his department the team’s work would end as part of efforts to trim spending by five per cent and reduce its workforce by three per cent over the next three years.

“We will stop research on method development related to measuring industrial emissions . . . .” Boothe wrote in a May 2 email, obtained by Postmedia News. “These reductions will not impact the department’s ability to conduct science, research, or monitoring. Science is and will continue to be the foundation of Environment Canada’s policy and regulatory work.”

Thomas Duck, an atmospheric scientist from Dalhousie University in Halifax, suggested the cuts would jeopardize the government’s plans to create a credible monitoring plan for the oilsands, which are needed to help boost the industry’s environmental reputation on the international stage with scientific evidence about its footprint.

“It’s vandalism of our scientific capacity,” said Duck. “Why announce a (oilsands-monitoring) plan and then undermine your own ability to implement it. So to me it suggests that they never had any intention to follow through on the (oilsands) plan and that it’s for show only.”

The union, representing about 6,000 environment workers, has asked the government to reverse its decision, warning that there were serious public health risks across the country emerging from the government’s decision.

“If they’re not monitoring any more, we don’t know what level of carcinogens are being put in the air which (has) a huge link toward many different types of cancer,” said Todd Panas, president of the Union of Environment Workers. “It just shows the government doesn’t seem to be concerned with the health of Canadians.”

Boothe and a senior Environment Canada manager, Charles Lin, a director general of atmospheric science and technology, both met with members of the team in May after the specialists had received letters about the elimination of their positions.

Panas, who attended the second meeting with Lin, said he was shocked to learn management had cut core services without adequately consulting the scientists and stakeholders or fully analyzing the services the team was providing.

“It was a pretty intense meeting,” Panas said. “It got a little heated . . . What was shocking (was that) the only people who were consulted . . . were at the director general levels (of management) and above.”

Panas said the employees are being told the government is attempting to shift resources toward oilsands monitoring, but he explained some of the specialists could be asked to accept demotions and a reduction in salary to stay in the department in a new position. Ultimately, he said the changes would not allow Environment Canada to maintain services.

Union officials also noted that the team had recently been requested to work on a new government clean energy funding program by industry stakeholders who said that they could not effectively proceed without the team’s expertise.

“These are the go-to people, not only in Environment Canada, but also outside to other parties that have anything to do with knowing whether the test results (on) emissions is actually accurate and meeting the standards set in today’s world,” said Daryl Hoelke, an executive assistant at the union.

“So without them being in there, the question from the other people that are using this expertise is: ‘Who are going to be the go-to people?'”

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