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Some of Canada's biggest oil companies are doing little to reduce the level of smog-producing sulphur in their gasoline.

Industry figures reported to Environment Canada and obtained under the Access to Information Act show that despite new federal government regulations calling for a 90-per-cent reduction in sulphur levels in gasoline, Canada's major petroleum producers are making little progress toward that goal.

In particular, four of the five major refineries in Ontario were still well above the national average in terms of sulphur content.

Imperial Oil, owner of the Esso chain of service stations, produced gasoline from its Sarnia, Ont. refinery with a sulphur content of 739 parts per million during the second quarter of 1999, and 737 ppm in the third. The numbers are well above levels that trigger health concerns, especially during summer months that fall within the quarters.

They represent a dip of about 100 ppm from the same period a year earlier, but are more than double the national average of roughly 360.

The company's Nanticoke, Ont., refinery had the country's second-highest level, at 620 ppm in the second quarter and 480 in the third, also down from the previous year.

Gasoline produced at Petro-Canada's Oakville refinery was the next highest, at 500 and 600 ppm during the two quarters. Shell Canada's Oakville refinery was also above the average, at 500 and 400 ppm.

Sulphur particles are the unhealthiest part of the smog that plagues many of Canada's cities each summer. The particles can create breathing problems and cause premature deaths for people with respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis.

The federal government, which allows gasoline to contain up to 1,000 parts per million, recently ordered the petroleum industry to cut levels to 150 ppm by 2002 and a maximum of 30 ppm by 2005.

Despite the falling levels, Imperial's continued reign as the producer of the dirtiest gasoline adds fuel to a boycott of Esso stations being staged by environmental group Friends of the Earth. For nearly a month, FOE has been urging Ontario motorists to avoid buying gasoline from the company in an effort to force it to reduce sulphur contents quickly.

Suncor, which operates Sunoco gas stations, and New Brunswick's Irving Oil had low sulphur levels and clearly took the issue seriously, said FOE's chief executive, Diane Olivastri. Sunoco's Sarnia refinery produced gasoline with sulphur levels of 260 ppm the second quarter of last year, and 190 ppm in the third quarter. The levels at Irving's Saint John operation were 110 and 100 ppm, respectively.

Imperial spokesman Richard O'Farrell said his company is acting to reduce sulphur contents, pointing out that levels fell at all four of its refineries last year.

Petro-Canada spokeswoman Laurie Stretch said the company would meet the new federal standards.

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