Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dearth Of 60

Over the past years I have become more jaded about health programs put in place by any level of government; I just can't get past the notion that they would benefit from a less fit population, after all it is harder to riot if you can't walk down a street. But I was actually excited about the Air Quality Health index - especially since if I hope to keep running on a regular basis, it is easier without particulate in my lungs.

I came to a halt in my navigation, however, when I looked at the map available for air monitoring.  There was a large void in the province where my hometown was; the community of High Level, which also has my vote for "Most Difficult Town Name to Constructively Google for" since every search includes any site with 'high levels' of anything. In fact, anything north of Grande Prairie or west of Fort McKay was blank.

When I spoke with High Level's mayor, he said the provincial index had not been mentioned to him in any capacity, but he remembered some air quality monitoring stations operating within the area in the past. For anyone not familiar with the area the dominant industry is forestry, which necessitates the existence of structure called a "Burner". These large, glowing, building - sized machines are the reason that, for the first fifteen years of my life, I believed snow came with black flecks on it, dusted on top like chocolate curls on a cake. The mayor also mentioned that High Prairie was the site of a Burner, and it, too, is missing on the Air Quality map.

My next call was to Bob Myrick from Alberta Environment, who politely acknowledged that there was a big gap in the monitoring, and even that they were likely to field some phone calls about it, but he said they only put them in major communities (Beaverlodge: pop. 2500, Bruderheim: pop. 1228, Lamont: pop.1700) that were close to major industries (not the Forestry industry, which is apparently pittance), since the stations cost around $50 000 annually to run. He suggested I should speak to my local political representative, the Mayor, which I already had, but with even my elementary understanding of provincial/municipal relationships, I realize it is unlikely the town could have any influence in the actions of Alberta Environment. I asked Mr. Myrick about the monitoring stations that were already there, but he believed they were run by the industry to report for legislation reasons, and mentioned that if they were run by Alberta Environment it would be convenient to add them onto the monitoring system. I elected not to mention that if the monitoring stations were run by the industry to report back for legislative reasons, they would likely be reporting to Alberta Environment, and could therefore provide the desired forecast that other communities enjoy. It seems the main reason to not do so would be to keep industry sensitive information away from the public.

The last reason Mr. Myrick gave for the deficiency was the lack of Airshed partnership in High Level; apparently a lot of the program is assisted by Airshed programs across the province, (Alberta capital airshed appears to focus on the capital, rather than the Alberta, not that I'm bitter) an idea that is certainly reinforced by the map of Airshed alliances, which almost mirrors the Air Quality maps exactly. But it is pretty uncomfortable to consider such a big part of our health/environment program would rely so heavily on non-profit organizations, but be presented as if the province was looking out for our well being. It might even seem as though the airshed programs were pestering the government into action.

Wow, you are verbose today. Making up for that week off?
You got me, Dear Reader, I do feel guilty, but there is a reason for the particular rearrangement of air monitoring. Two are, notably, flanking the Oil Sands, despite the low population (1000) in Fort McKay, but return pristine air quality assessments, a sure sign that this is just a covert attempt to raise the public perception of the Oil Sands. The fact that Fort Chipewyan, population 1000 but known for it's complaints about the Oil Sands causing cancer, merited a station (although they are within the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association's jurisdiction) only gives evidence to this idea. The air quality in forestry heavy places like High Level and High Prairie would be abysmal from the air particulates produced by the Burners, and so they just ignore those areas.

What we really need is an Airshed alliance up north, to start motivating the government to look into these areas. It can not continue to gloss over the experiences of those at the higher latitudes and hope they don't notice.  The north won't stay marginalized for long.

The title plays off the name of an old show about life in Northern Canada, "North of 60", as in North of sixty degrees latitude.

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