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Ottawa, provinces poised to agree on new deal to control air pollution

Tar Island facility located at the Athabaska Oil Sands north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Federal and provincial environment ministers are poised to announce a new deal to better control industrial air pollution and reduce smog.

Officials from both levels of government have agreed in principle to the air-quality deal, and have the backing of almost all affected industries.

Ministers are meeting Thursday in Banff to sign the deal, barring last-minute objections, multiple sources say.

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"This is the first comprehensive national environment scheme that I can recall," said Stephen Hazell, an Ottawa-based environment lawyer who has been involved in smog-reduction since 2007. "This is extraordinary in itself."

The deal would see the governments agree to higher standards on air quality, at first targeting fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone.

Then they'll move on limits to nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds.

"It's a big improvement over the standards we have right now," Mr. Hazell said. "You have Alberta, Ontario and the Government of Canada agreement on a national approach to deal with one of the big environmental problems of our time: smog."

Government sources cautioned that ministers still had to give a final stamp of approval Thursday. Quebec's position was still unknown, given the recent change in government. Quebec often opts out of such agreements but implements them on its own terms.

The federal-provincial environment ministers' website said the changes were prompted because it became obvious that the current standards were too low.

"With new science and research regarding the effects of air pollution on our health and the environment it has become apparent that the current Canada-wide standards need to be updated and more stringent ambient air quality standards are necessary," says the website.

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In fact it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper who provided the political impetus in 2007, when he vowed to cut smog in half by 2015, Mr. Hazell said. This agreement won't go nearly that far, he said, but it will likely result in sizable smog reductions over time.

The new air-quality management system will specifically target industrial pollutants by setting minimum emissions requirements for each individual industry.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all," Mr. Hazell said.

Documentation on the ministers' website says the requirements would affect a wide range of industrial activity related to mining, energy and oil sands, and would apply to boilers, heaters, turbines and engines.

Transportation is also targeted by the new air-quality management system.

But Mr. Hazell said the final, fine print with the oilsands industry was still under negotiation.

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While the federal government would set the country's standards, provinces would be left to implement the agreement, with an eye on six regions in which smog may cross boundaries.

If a province does not keep smog below the required levels, the federal government will have the power to step in and force industry to be more compliant, Mr. Hazell said.

"The federal government can get involved and basically kick some ass," he said.

Negotiators have been working for years on the smog deal, in conjunction with industry and non-governmental groups. They hope to implement the new standards next year.

One weakness with the agreement is that the flexibility makes it next to impossible to know how much smog will actually be reduced, Mr. Hazell added.

"How much are we actually going to get out of this? It's hard to figure out."

Pollution control is a life-and-death matter for tens of thousands of Canadians every year, according to research done by the Canadian Medical Association.

In a 2008 study, the association produced data showing that 21,000 Canadians die prematurely every year because of the effects of air pollution.

Most of those deaths are from accumulated exposure over years, but 3,000 are the result of short-term acute exposure, the study said.

The CMA said that in 2008, air pollution was the cause of 9,000 hospital visits, 30,0000 emergency department visits and 620,000 doctor's office visits.

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