Canada's Pollution Going Up

June 29, 2003

By Michael Jessen

Tougher laws are needed to reduce pollution in Canada, as the voluntary approach does not appear to be working.

Three environmental groups say the pollution of Canada's air, water and land has increased by more than 20% since 1995. Total releases of chemicals of concern increased by more than 36 million kilograms (kg) from 177,009,091 kg in 1995 to 213,414,272 kg in 2001. This increase was recorded for a group of 163 "core chemicals" that have been monitored by Environment Canada each year since 1995 through the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

"The overall amount of pollution is going up," says Paul Muldoon, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, one of the groups that issued the figures on June 19. "That means the regulatory system is failing us."

The association, Environmental Defence Canada, and the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy have posted the data on the web site Visitors to the PollutionWatch web site can identify polluters in their home towns by searching by postal code, access "quick lists" of the largest polluters in the country, get pollution trends 1995-2001, or create their own ranked lists of polluters by province, municipality, industrial sector, or corporation.

"There's been a lot of smug high-fiving lately between government and industry pretending that they have a grip on pollution," said Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence Canada. "But the fact is that where it matters most, in communities right across Canada, pollution is getting worse. It's going to take more than wishful thinking to clean up our land, air and water."

The last major federal environmental initiative in Canada came in the early 1990's when pulp and paper companies were forced to reduce their pollution discharges. Since then, both provincial and federal authorities have generally relied on voluntary pollution-reduction agreements with industry rather than binding regulations.

"The large increase in pollution shows that practices need to change," said Muldoon. "The real solution to pollution is to substitute materials and change processes to stop creating these harmful substances in the first place."

The PollutionWatch web site also includes regulatory information on toxic substances, chemical and health information, educational tool kits, maps and the ability to contact facilities or the federal Minister of the Environment.

"This web site puts pollution information in the hands of people who are affected by it," said Anne Mitchell, Executive Director of the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy. "PollutionWatch allows people to take immediate action by contacting polluting plants or the federal Environment Minister to voice concerns about the level of pollution in their community."

Contaminants emitted to the atmosphere and on land each increased by 9% from 1995 to 2001. Contaminants discharged to waterways increased 37%, the web site reported.

A postal code search for Nelson reveals no reporting facilities, but type in V1R for Trail and you get some good news from the city's Teck Cominco Metals Limited facility. The lead and zinc smelter has steadily reduced its pollution discharges since 1995 when it was the sixth largest polluter in the country with 3,782,362 kg of discharges, mostly zinc (and its compounds) and ammonia.

Ammonia and zinc are still the predominant discharges from the Trail facility but they are less than one-tenth their 1995 levels in the 2001 report. Releases and transfers from the smelter fell to 285,180 kg in 2001, putting the facility in the 240th position in the national ranking of polluting plants.

By clicking on the pollutant released by each reporting facility, one is directed to the U.S. counterpart web site This reveals a chemical profile of the substance, its human health hazards, a chemical use profile, and a hazard ranking, among other information.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program ( in 1988. It contains information on releases of nearly 650 chemicals and chemical categories from industries including manufacturing, metal and coal mining, electric utilities, and commercial hazardous waste treatment, among others.

The EPA has just released its TRI report for 2001 and it shows a trend opposite to that in Canada -- toxic chemical releases are down 15.5 percent, or 1.05 billion pounds, from 2000. Based on trends since the inception of TRI, chemical releases have fallen about 54.5 percent, says the EPA in a June 30 news release (

In the TRI report for 2001 (, EPA said that releases from hard-rock mining for metals like copper, silver, and gold made up largest portion of all chemical releases at 45 percent. However, the metals mining industry also had the largest absolute decrease in chemicals in 2001 from the previous year, by 602.5 million pounds or 20 percent, EPA said.

Metals mining released about 2.78 billion pounds of chemicals, including compounds containing lead, arsenic, and mercury, in 2001. By comparison, about 17 percent were emitted from electric utilities, a decline of 8.5 percent from 2000, while chemical manufacturing accounted for 9.5 percent of all releases, down 14.5 percent from 2000.

Most chemicals, about 65 percent, went into land, both on-site and off-site, while 27 percent was released to the air, 4 percent to water, and another 4 percent to underground injection on- and off-site, EPA said. For all industries, there was a fall in releases of mercury to air by nearly 7 percent and to water by 25.6 percent.

PollutionWatch shows the biggest polluters in Canada include:

Air polluter. The largest air polluter is the Ontario Government's Nanticoke coal-fired electricity generating station. The Nanticoke power plant on the shores of Lake Erie released 6,934,136 kg of contaminants to the air, mostly lung-irritating, acid rain-causing gases. Nanticoke released nearly 6.3 million kg of hydrochloric acid; 389,088 kg of hydrogen fluoride, an acid rain-causing, irritating gas declared hazardous by the US EPA; 355,421 kg of sulphuric acid, and 226 kg of the nerve toxin mercury.

Water polluter. The largest water polluter is the City of Calgary's Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Plant. It discharged 7.6 million kg of contaminants of concern in the treated sewage it released into the Bow River. The plant's discharges included 7.5 million kg of nitrate which reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen; and 107,200 kg of ammonia, a substance that has been declared toxic by the Canadian government.

Cancer polluter. The largest emitter of cancer-causing substances to the Canadian environment was the Safety-Kleen (now Clean Harbor Canada) hazardous waste landfill and incinerator in Corunna, Ontario. The hazardous waste facility near Sarnia, Ontario released 952,570 kg of carcinogens, including 774,569 kg of lead (which is also a nerve toxin), nearly all to an on-site landfill; and 73,120 kg of nickel, a cancer-causing substance, most to landfill.

Birth defects polluter. The Safety-Kleen (now Clean Harbor Canada) hazardous waste landfill and incinerator in Corunna, Ontario released 857,584 kg of chemicals that can interfere with human reproductive outcomes and child development. Safety-Kleen released 774,569 kg of lead, which can impair a child's development and intelligence; 66,703 kg of cadmium which at high exposure levels can cause low body weight, smaller testes and developmental problems in new-born and developing young animals; 15,100 kg of arsenic which has been observed to cause birth defects in animals (and can cause lung, skin, bladder, liver, kidney and prostate cancer); and 1,160 kg of the nerve toxin mercury (which slows development and reduces intelligence) - most to its landfill and 240 kg to the air.

Ozone-depleting polluter. OC Celfortec's plastic foam products facility in Grande-Ile, Quebec, was the largest emitter of substances that destroy the planet's protective ozone layer. The plant emitted 415,120 kg of ozone-depleting substances, including 304,870 kg of HCFC-142b and 110,250 kg of HCFC-22.

Toxics polluter. Alcan's Usine Vaudreuil bauxite refining operation in Jonquière, Quebec, was the largest discharger of chemicals designated as toxic by Environment Canada under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). Usine Vaudreuil released 10,163,062 kg of toxics in 2001, including more than 10 million kg of calcium fluoride to an on-site landfill. Calcium fluoride can irritate lungs and can cause bone changes called skeletal fluorosis. The plant also released 3,236 kg of cancer-causing benzo(a)pyrene to landfill.

More of Canada's polluting companies should follow Teck Cominco's example of reducing pollution. The company was the seventh ranked worst polluter from all of its Canadian facilities in 1995. By 2001, it had fallen to 170th on the national ranking.

RESOURCES - The July issue of Environmental Health Perspectives ( has a number of articles about human prenatal and postnatal exposure to Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers. PBDEs are widely used as flame retardants in consumer goods, such as plastics, electronics, textiles, and construction material. PBDEs have been found in human milk, fat, and blood samples. The articles present new evidence showing that not only do certain environmental chemicals pass from mother to fetus, they do so in greater amounts than previously thought.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who helps companies and communities profit from sustainable initiatives. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His company -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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