ENVIRONMENT

Winds of change

Saint John’s air has its residents fuming

GLEN ALLEN October 29 1990
ENVIRONMENT

Winds of change

Saint John’s air has its residents fuming

GLEN ALLEN October 29 1990

Winds of change

ENVIRONMENT

Saint John’s air has its residents fuming

In the past, his doctor has advised Raymond King, a 70-year-old retired construction worker who suffers from severe asthma, to leave Saint John, N.B. King cannot afford to move, but when the city’s smoke and acid-laden fog close in around his north-end home, he gets in his car and drives into the countryside.

Says King: “It never fails. When I get 20 miles out of town, I start to feel better again.” King’s experience reflects what many Saint John residents have been claiming for years—that the fumes that spew into Atlantic Canada’s third-largest city from plants, factories and mills cause discomfort. Irving pulp-and-paper mill in Reversing Falls: cleaning up Now the level of concern has been heightened by suggestions that the air pollution in the city may even be lethal.

In recent months, Dr. Robert Beveridge, the chief of emergency services at Saint John

Regional Hospital, has expressed concern that deaths from serious respiratory illness in Saint John were running at a higher level than in other cities in the province. According to Sta-

tistics Canada, in 1986 the death rate from respiratory problems in Moncton and Fredericton was 63 and 74 for every 100,000 people. But in Saint John, the figure was 93 for every 100,000 people. Declared Beveridge in an interview last week: “For years people here have been living with the suspicion that there’s a problem. And for years they have been told that there isn’t one.”

Saint John’s environmental concerns were underscored in May when a nine-member, provincially appointed committee released a hard-hitting report. “The stink from an industrial plant is not the smell of money,” declared the 65-page document. “It is the smell of shortsighted thinking that has no place in modem society. It is wrong for industrial plants to be generating profits on the back of the environment.”

Following publication of c the report, federal, provincial § and municipal officials met for 2 discussions. But environment I department officials in PreQ mier Frank McKenna’s government said there were no immediate plans to act on the report, which criticized all levels of government for not enforcing pollution standards. It recommended the hiring of more government inspectors and prosecutors to enforce existing provincial regulations. Despite the province’s tepid response, Barry Morrison, the Saint John lawyer who headed the inquiry, said that growing public concern was likely to lead to action on the city’s environmental problems. Said Morrison: “I really do believe something is going to be done. Now, what we have to do is keep the pressure on.”

Saint John has already demonstrated that public pressure and civic pride can produce results in other areas. Diming the past decade, the city has largely refurbished and renewed its once dismal and grimy downtown area, symbolized by the $ 100-million Market Square waterfront commercial complex. But the battle against pollution may pose a more difficult challenge. With a population of 125,000, Saint John is the oldest incorporated city in Canada. Located on the province’s south coast with a large deepwater harbor served by a network of inland waterways, the city is home to the largest oil refinery in Canada as well as a huge pulp mill and a paper mill—all part of billionaire K. C. Irving’s industrial empire. As well, there are two provincially operated power-generating stations in the city, along with a sugar refinery, two breweries and numerous enterprises connected with the shipping industry.

As a result of the city’s industrial concentration, environmentalists say that Saint John’s air often contains hazardous levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ash and carbon particles, carbon dioxide, ozone and hydrogen sulphide. Sulphur dioxide, which is usually produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil or coal, has been blamed for causing acid rain, while carbon dioxide is thought by many scientists to play a role in global warming. Still, Environment Canada figures show that some other Canadian cities have worse air pollution problems. Environment Canada officials said that measurements of particulate matter, consisting mainly of ash and carbon, were often lower in Saint John than in Toronto, Hamilton or Montreal. But Beveridge, for one, says that because of Saint John’s frequent fogs and temperature inversions (which can result in a mass of air remaining stationary over the city for days at a time), “we might be dealing with a worse form of pollution.”

The most recent alarms over the city’s air quality were sounded by the 38-year-old Beveridge, who came to Saint John from Toronto Western Hospital in 1988. Beveridge said that, soon after his arrival, he noticed that a large number of patients at the Saint John Regional Hospital were suffering from respiratory problems. Beveridge said that, after discovering statistical evidence of higher rates of respiratory illness in Saint John, he and a colleague at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus began a study of illness and mortality rates in the city. He said that one aim of the study is to determine whether smoking plays a part in Saint John’s high incidence of respiratory illness. Said Beveridge: “It may be the case that there are more smokers in a bluecollar city.”

In the meantime, some of the city’s major industries have launched, or are planning, cleanup campaigns. William Borland, director of environmental affairs for J. D. Irving Ltd., said that at the company’s 45-year-old Reversing Falls pulp mill, on the west side of the city, $25 million worth of scrubbers and other antipollution equipment had been installed during the past decade. As a result, said Borland, airborne emissions by the plant have “gone from 800 pounds per hour to eight pounds per hour—and we are going to reduce that even more by the spring.” At the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission’s thermal generating stations on the outskirts of Saint John, electrostatic precipitators that began operating two years ago remove particulate matter from the plant’s emissions.

For her part, Janet Kidd, a concert singer who moved to Saint John from Vancouver four years ago, senses a growing desire for change among her fellow citizens. The author of a widely publicized letter to city council complaining about pollution last month, Kidd says that public opinion is being mobilized. Said Kidd: “For years, everyone in Saint John talked about this around the kitchen table. But it was taboo to bring it up in public. People were afraid that if the air was cleaned up the factories would shut down.” Since her letter was presented to city council, said Kidd, she has received “dozens of calls from other people saying, ‘I’m so glad you came out and said what you did.’” Clearly, with public concern mounting, the winds of change may soon bring cleaner air to New Brunswick’s industrial heartland.

GLEN ALLEN in Saint John