Pollution knows no boundaries

Environmentalists want Ottawa to set caps on emissions from Alberta’s oilsands that are likely responsible for acid rain falling over northern Saskatchewan’s pristine rivers and lakes.

Environmentalists want Ottawa to set caps on emissions from Alberta’s oilsands that are likely responsible for acid rain falling over northern Saskatchewan’s pristine rivers and lakes.

“It’s not just regulation on every individual plant that’s needed. There also needs to be a regional cap that’s established for the industry,” said Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. “The federal government has the authority to do so.”

Alberta’s oilsands are located just west of the boundary between the two provinces. The massive industrial plants emit more than 150,000 tonnes of acid-rain-causing gases every year and previous studies have suggested that about 70 per cent of those gases blow into Saskatchewan.

The province has been monitoring rainfall in the La Loche area just across from Fort McMurray. Results from nine samples over 18 months that ended last March showed an average pH level of 4.93. That level is about three times as acidic as unpolluted rainfall and about the same acidity as a cup of black coffee.

“We do have concerns and have been putting significant resources in to determine what the baseline situation is up there,” said Murray Hilderman, air policy analyst for Saskatchewan Environment.

He cautions that the data so far is limited.

“We wouldn’t be able to get a trend with just a couple of years data,” Hilderman said.

The province is sampling hundreds of lakes in northwestern Saskatchewan to find out what’s happening in the area. Alberta Environment — which has been monitoring the area for 40 years — says acid in both the rain and the soil is within acceptable limits.

“We haven’t seen anything moving toward those (limits),” said spokeswoman Lisa Grotkowski.

The province’s field measurements suggest soil pH in the oilsands region has hovered around 4 since 2004, Grotkowski said. The level at which vegetation begin to be affected is between 3.7 and 4.

Acid rain forms when chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and various nitrogen oxides are expelled from smokestacks and mix with atmospheric moisture. Too much soil acid damages trees roots and leaches nutrients too deep for plants to use.

Prebble said it’s important to start thinking beyond boundaries.

“There needs to be pressure from the Saskatchewan government to say to Alberta, ’Listen, your pollution is putting our lakes at risk and we need a new set of regulations.”’

“If an end result can’t be produced through that process, then the government of Canada needs to step in.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan signed an agreement in 2002 to co-operate on air quality issues.

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