Ontario pulls plug on acid rain program

Acid Rain 1

Ontario no longer monitors acid rainfall. It has cut the last of a once proud and valuable program and saved $100,000.

The decision was taken because Ontario feels it no longer needs to collect the basic data. The federal government collects similar data in seven monitoring stations in Ontario, and so the question, according to Ed Piché, was whether Ontario’s 16 stations were needed? « How much (basic data) is enough?’’ Piché is director of the environmental monitoring and policy branch in Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment.

Billions of dollars will be hanging on decisions concerning acid rain that are yet to be made — or not made — over the next several years. So is this the time to scuttle the Ontario program for the sake of $100,000 a year?

Many think not. Piché calls them purists who think it’s necessary to monitor every single molecule of acid rain deposited in rainfall, fog, or snow.

The chemistry of acid rain impact is known, he says. The ministry has highly sophisticated computer models to extrapolate impacts. It’s like checking blood pressure. Doctors don’t need to check a dozen points on your body. They know enough about how the body functions that they can check it in one spot and diagnose consequences. Its the same with acid rain, he says. Data supplied by the federal government will be totally adequate for diagnosing impacts.

Four years ago, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner disagreed with the direction in which the province was going. The commissioner’s 1996 report said that, « Despite the need to do more, the government continues to dissolve its acid rain program. Since 1991, the Ministry of Environment and Energy’s monitoring network dropped from 39 to 16 sites…. Substantial cuts in 1996…(compromised) the completeness and integrity of data collected…. (This has) reduced our ability to protect our lakes and forests, and to contribute to the national and international fight against acid rain.’’

Now all sites have been scrapped, although research on acid rain impacts continues in the Sudbury area and at the Dorset Research Station near Bracebridge.

Among those dismayed by the cuts are two men, one from industry and one from government, who have been key in developing Canada’s position on acid rain. Tom Brydges chaired the Canada-United States Committee on the Effects of Acid Rain in the nineteen eighties when « the (U.S. President) Ronald Regan types’’ were denying there was a problem. It was scientific hand-to-hand combat, he says, and data from Ontario’s monitoring stations were essential to Canadian success, and signing of the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement in 1991.

The other person is Charles Ferguson, vice president for environment, health and safety at Inco Ltd. He participated in a 1997 task force, with federal, provincial, and other industry officials, that developed recommendations for setting targets to reduce acid rain

Both are appalled by the cuts. Brydges calls them disastrous. « It’s like cutting one leg off the table,’’ at a time when scientists are trying to understand the complex ways in which ecosystems are being harmed. Brydges retired two years ago as director of the Ecological Monitoring Network at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters at Burlington. He now teaches at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Ferguson goes farther. It’s not just the closing of the stations, he says. It’s the laying off of so many senior people in the last few years. « They were first class people doing first class work. No one could bullshit them. They knew more than we did.’’

He’s proud of Inco’s record in reducing acid rain, and proud of what civil servants achieved. But when Ontario cut so many senior environmental officials, it began to destroy its institutional knowledge. « And when that happens, it’s very hard to repair.’’

Call me a purist, if you want, but I side with Brydges and Ferguson. Our lakes and forests are under multiple threats, some poorly understood, all of them reinforcing each other. This is no time to be cutting back on information or on expertise.

NEXT WEEK: The complexities of acid rain


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