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Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli.

JON BLACKER/REUTERS

Ontario will not convert a coal-fired power plant in Lambton County to natural gas operation, even as it builds new gas plants.

The government spent up to $1.1-billion to cancel two gas plants in the Toronto suburbs, and much of that sum will be spent on replacement plants elsewhere in the province. Advocates of switching the Lambton plant to gas contend it could be done more cheaply.

But Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli said that is not going to happen.

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"Right now, that plant is not in the planning system," he said Wednesday, as he announced that the Lambton plant had burnt its last coal and is now shut down. "We have enough supply, enough surplus at the present time, so we're not going to be converting it."

When asked why the government opted to build new gas plants instead of converting Lambton, he replied: "I don't think I can add any more."

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said the province should make better use of the infrastructure it already has – Lambton is owned by Ontario Power Generation – rather than contracting for new facilities with private companies.

"We should take a look at the feasibility and the energy needs with regard to that coal plant," she said. "Let's use existing public assets to their fullest opportunity – for example, converting coal plants to gas plants instead of bringing the private sector in to build new private sector gas plants."

The Power Workers' Union estimates it would cost about $120 to $170-million to turn the Lambton site into a natural gas plant.

"It's the smart thing to do. Existing plants supporting hundred of good jobs with existing transmission connection with supportive host communities," union spokesman John Sprackett said.

The end of coal burning at Lambton brings Ontario closer to its goal of ending coal-fired generation entirely. Over the last decade, the Liberals have slowly closed down coal plants and replaced them with greener alternatives.

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Shuttering Lambton earned plaudits from the medical community, which said the government's moves are making it easier for Ontarians – particularly those with respiratory ailments – to breathe.

"Large population studies have shown that when air pollution levels are higher, more people are admitted to hospital for effects on their lungs, cardiovascular systems as well as stokes," said Bruce Urch, an air pollution researcher at the University of Toronto. "Conversely, when air pollution levels are lower, health is improved."

Pediatrician Hilary DeVeber, vice-president of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said ending coal power was "precedent-setting."

"Every day, I treat children with asthma and developmental problems, and I'm so pleased today that I can say that as a group we worked very hard and cooperated and were able to set a precedent for something that will improve all of these children's health," she said.

Of the other coal plants in Ontario, one at Nanticoke is scheduled to shut down by the end of the year, another at Atikokan is being converted to burn bio-mass and the Thunder Bay plant was originally set to be converted to natural gas, but the government suspended that plan while it reviews its options for supplying power in the area.

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