• By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal
    A new $1.6-billion natural-gas fired power plant at Wabamun Lake will produce less air pollution than older, coal-fired plants in the region, TransAlta utilities told a Alberta Utilities Commission public hearing this week.

    But that’s not good enough, some environmental groups say.

    Amid growing concern about air pollution in the region, TransAlta says emissions from the proposed 856-megawatt Sundance 7 plant will be “more than 90 per cent lower than” their older coal plants.

    The new plant, to be built with U.S. based Berkshire Hathaway Energy, is needed to meet growing demand for electricity, as well as allow the company to begin to phase out two older coal units in the region, Mark Mackay, TransAlta president of engineering and construction, told the hearing.

    “We are on a path to retiring the aging fleet of coal plants in this province,” Mackay said.

    “Our air emissions models show that Sundance 7 will meet all applicable air quality objectives” set by Alberta Environment, he added.

    An air quality report submitted by Golder Associates consulting predicted at least twice a year the proposed plant will exceed provincial legal limits for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), an invisible pollutant that causes heart and respiratory problems.

    Golder described that “incremental increase in PM2.5 concentrations” as “minimal” and said other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide will be “well below” Alberta’s limits.

    Interveners at the hearing are worried about any increase in fine particulate matter, which already hits high levels in Edmonton winters.

    While natural gas does burn cleaner than coal, pollution levels will not be reduced because of the size of the proposed TransAlta plant, combined with the additional pollution load from two other new gas-fired plants that got a green light this spring, said Dr. Joe Vipond of the Canadian Physicians for the Environment.

    Capital Power is building two new gas-fired plants, Genesee 4 and 5, nearby.

    Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan, a cottage owner near Genesee who was denied standing at the hearing, noted that Alberta Environment already knows PM2.5 levels in Edmonton have exceeded legal limits on some winter days.

    “They should not be adding another source of particulate matter pollution to the area upwind of Edmonton area,” she said. “We need a strategy to bring levels down.”

    A provincial study released in January found that Edmonton exceeded legal limits for fine particulate matter on several winter days in 2010-12.

    On bad air days, the level of PM2.5 pollution in Edmonton is now worse than in Toronto, and part of the cause is the coal plants upwind of the city, say environmental advocates.

    Duncan urged Alberta Environment to take action on the high PM2.5 levels right away because it has a legal obligation under the Capital Region Air Quality Management Framework.

    “So where is the action?” Duncan said.

    The City Edmonton, part owner of Capital Power, should oppose new power plants upwind of Edmonton, she said, as the city’s airshed is already showing signs of carrying a heavy load of pollutants.

    TransAlta plans to close two older coal units, Sundance 1 and 2, by 2019.
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