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As the hot summer days give way to cooler autumn winds, I wonder whether concern over our toxic air will similarly fade away. We won't be chatting with our neighbours about smog alerts this Christmas season. And there won't be a thick humid haze hanging over us as we shovel snow in February. But Ontario's insidious problem of severe air pollution will still be unsolved. Only its most visible effects will be in winter hibernation. The causes, on the other hand, will continue to foul the air, change our climate and kill our citizens.

The Ontario Medical Association concludes that the situation is a "public health crisis" and estimates that 1,900 Ontarians die prematurely from air pollution each year. Entirely preventable deaths, of course, if only we reduced air pollution. Death and illness from air pollution is not an acute event such as the Walkerton water tragedy, but its adverse effects are far more pervasive.

In many ways, air pollution is an example of what Yale's Kai Erikson calls chronic disasters -- disasters that are terrifying in their magnitude but frustratingly difficult to address. "A chronic disaster is one that gathers force slowly and insidiously, creeping around one's defences rather than smashing through them. People are unable to mobilize their normal defences against the threat, sometimes because they have elected consciously or unconsciously to ignore it, sometimes because they have been misinformed about it, and sometimes because they cannot do anything to avoid it in any case."

Many citizens feel disarmed in the battle against air pollution. Their individual actions seem like a drop in the bucket. What difference can they make? Part of this paralysis stems from the feeling that, even if they do their part, there are too many other free riders fouling the commons.

And who is the biggest free rider in Ontario? It is our own provincial government -- the very body that is supposed to protect the public interest. As the sole shareholder and regulator of Ontario Power Generation Inc. (formerly Ontario Hydro), the province can fix a key source of air pollution by converting our aging coal-fired power plants to cleaner natural gas.

While the province is relatively powerless in preventing pollution drifting in from the U.S. Midwest, it does have direct control over our power plants, including the Nanticoke station on Lake Erie -- one of the largest and filthiest coal-fired power plants on the continent.

But instead of cleaning up the keystone piece of the puzzle that it is Ontario's air, the province tries to make air pollution look as if it is only an international problem or tries to divert attention to the individual citizen.

The government did not hesitate in requiring drivers to adhere to the Drive Clean program, but such individual efforts will only meaningfully contribute to the greater good if the province deals with its own out-of-date coal-guzzling power plants. To deal with our chronically ill winds, we need everyone to do their part. It is time for our elected provincial leaders to come out of their collective slumber and help clean up our toxic air.

Meantime, the province's lax attitude toward air pollution is not only killing time, it is killing Ontarians. Jerry DeMarco is managing lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, a non-profit environmental law organization.