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Windsor Could be an Environmental Leader

By Derek Coronado and Albert Koehl, The Windsor Star, April 11, 2007

Windsor's strategic location is enviable when it comes to the cross-border trade of goods with the U.S., but less enviable when the trade involves air contaminants.

Windsor's strategic location is enviable when it comes to the cross-border trade of goods with the U.S., but less enviable when the trade involves air contaminant's.

The annual death toll in Ontario from U.S. air contaminants is seven times Detroit's murder rate. And Windsor gets more pollution from the U.S. than any other city. The question today is not about the impact of U.S. pollutants but how Windsor and other affected communities respond.

The first option is to accept one's fate as a victim of American pollution, literally leaving our fortunes to the prevailing winds and relying on politicians at higher levels of government to do the right thing, eventually. The second option is to take direct action.

This article is about the second option, and why it is more likely to succeed.

It is true that even if Windsor drastically cut its own sources of pollution it would still suffer dirty air because upwind U.S. sources are so much bigger. Windsor, for instance, gets about 90 per cent of certain smog constituents from the American side. And while Ontario has four coal-fired power plants, there are 250 such plants in the upwind U.S. Midwest. The road to cleaner air, nonetheless, starts here because to achieve the moral authority and political influence, as well as the legal foundation, to motivate or force action on the U.S. side means first bringing our house in order.

Consider the problem with asking your neighbour to clean up the unsightly scrapheap in his or her back yard when you have a similar, albeit smaller, mess in your own. Ontario's Environment Minister Laurel Broten understands this point only too well.

EAGER TO EXPLORE

When Broten took over as Ontario's environment minister in 2005, she was eager to explore all options to fight transboundary pollution, including suits in U.S. courts. Minister Broten understood that success in American courts was at least partly dependent on proving one's clean hands. She also understood that Ontario's influence on U.S. political leaders was a function of the province's action at home.

Ontario had already been embarrassed several years earlier when New York State complained to NAFTA's environmental watchdog that emissions from Ontario coal-fired power plants were contaminating the air and water of downwind states. The matter became largely moot when Premier Dalton McGuinty took office in 2003 with a promised coal phase-out. Ontario and New York became quick friends -- and allies against dirty air from sources in the U.S. Midwest.

To spread the good news about its promise to close dirty power plants, Ontario organized a Shared Air Summit and invited prominent American State officials. During the first summit in 2005 -- at a relatively modest setting in Toronto -- U.S. participants got information about Ontario's visionary coal phase-out. Soon after, the promise became a rather meaningless commitment for closures by the middle of the next decade. At the second Shared Air Summit in 2006 -- at the luxurious Royal York Hotel -- participants got free briefcases with a nifty logo.

By reneging on its phase-out pledge -- in large part the result of a timid approach to energy conservation and efficiency measures -- the provincial government threw the health fortunes of Ontarians back to the wind.

No one lost more than the residents of Windsor.

Fortunately, municipal politicians, who are closer to people who breathe the air than they are to corporations that produce and benefit most from dirty power, appear willing to step into the breach.

The City of Waterloo, for example, passed an environmental plan several years ago to improve the city's air quality with anti-idling, green fleet and bikeway programs.

The City of Toronto has supported environmental initiatives through its Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the mayor is proposing an ambitious air pollution and climate change plan that may include an expansion of deep-lake water cooling for air conditioning, more building retrofits, and elimination of old-style light bulbs.

EVENING HOURS

In Quebec, cities like Trois Rivieres welcome tens of thousands of people to their downtown cores each summer weekend by prohibiting motorized access during evening hours.

This brings us back to Windsor.

The city's Environmental Master Plan (EMP) brings together many environmental programs, policies, and initiatives from across its operations. The EMP, like plans in some other cities, includes anti-idling initiatives, the greening of vehicle fleets and the expansion of bicycle infrastructure. The EMP, however, goes further and will attempt to revive innovative projects such as free transit during smog days, which was a successful pilot but never fully implemented due to too many smog days and insufficient funding.

As provincial politicians have recently taught us, boasting about a plan to eliminate major pollution sources and implementing it are different matters. So too Windsor's passage of its EMP was important, but the more important step -- quick and comprehensive implementation -- has yet to be taken.

When Windsor's city council, community leaders and citizens attack local pollution with real action, then we will not only get our house in order but also develop the influence we need to get our upwind American neighbours to do the same.

Windsor as an environmental leader in the fight for clean air? Why not? After all, we have the most to gain.

Derek Coronado is the research and policy co-ordinator of the Citizens Environment Alliance in Windsor. Albert Koehl is a lawyer with Sierra Legal, a Canadian environmental law organization.

Copyright (c) The Windsor Star