The McGuinty government came under fire today from representatives of Ontario’s registered nurses, physicians, community groups and environment groups for abandoning its plan to phase out the province’s highly polluting coal-fired power plants. The groups have filed a formal petition with the province’s Environmental Commissioner demanding a review of Ontario’s air pollution policy, based on statements from government ministers and civil servants showing that the phase-out was the centrepiece of the province’s plans to live up to its commitments to reduce smog, mercury emissions and greenhouse gases. In his recent 2006 Annual Report, the Commissioner slammed Ontario for its woeful performance concerning air pollution and climate change.
The petition, submitted by Sierra Legal on behalf of representatives from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Muskoka Lakes Association, Georgian Bay Association and WWF-Canada, is in response to the June 2006 decision by the Ontario government to abandon its attempt to phase out coal by 2009.
“Smog, climate change and mercury pollution are all significant risks to the health of Ontarians,” says Doris Grinspun, executive director of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. “What is the government’s plan B for protecting public health if the coal plants are going to continue to operate? Nurses also want to see a greater focus on energy conservation” she added.
“Ontario’s plan to reduce air pollution went up in smoke when the Liberal government announced that it would be reneging on its promise to phase out coal power,” says Sierra Legal lawyer Hugh Wilkins. “When the province abandoned its promise, it created a huge policy vacuum that has left Ontario unable to meet commitments, including those under the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Agreement and the Canada Wide Standard on Mercury.”
“We’re already seeing the adverse effects of smog and climate change in cottage country,” says Mary Muter of the Georgian Bay Association. “We are concerned that the government has weakened its hand in dealing with the U.S. over transboundary smog by backing away from its commitment to phase out coal.”
“The government’s own research puts the annual health costs of pollution from electricity generating stations at $3 billion and the environmental costs at an additional $371 million annually,” says Commodore Alan Hutton of the Muskoka Lakes Association. “These are costs that can, and should, be avoided by reducing pollution.”
The Ontario Medical Association recently linked the effects of smog to a predicted 5,940 premature deaths, 17,070 hospital admissions, and 60,640 emergency department visits in Ontario in 2006. Coal plants are also a major source of mercury pollution. Gideon Forman of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment adds, “Human exposure to mercury – primarily by eating contaminated fish – may cause neurological and developmental damage and causes learning disabilities in children. It is imperative that these emissions be curtailed.”
“The Ontario government has consistently said that they didn’t need a plan to meet our Kyoto commitments on climate change because they were phasing out the coal plants,” adds WWF-Canada’s Keith Stewart. “With the coal phase-out on hold, it is clear that we need a real plan and we’re hoping the Environmental Commissioner can jump-start that process.”