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The City of Toronto has taken another step towards a Community Right to Know bylaw for toxic emissions. This would be the first such bylaw in Canada, and might beat the province to the punch on its promised new toxics law.

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300 large facilities in Toronto already report their emissions through the National Pollutant Release Inventory, but the City estimates that 80% of local toxic emissions go unreported. The City therefore plans to plug the gap, by requiring small and medium businesses to report.

The City has picked 25 “priority contaminants” that it considers the greatest risk to public health. It hopes that businesses will voluntarily choose to reduce their emissions once they are forced to figure them out and publicly admit to them. The City also plans to help businesses with pollution prevention.

In principle, the idea makes sense, but it will be challenging to get the details right.

For constitutional reasons, the City must be careful not to demand more data than is required and useful to protect public health. For example, the City wants to collect information about chemical use and storage, but health is only affected by chemicals that are released into the environment. And while we understand the health basis for collecting information on releases to outdoor air, what is the health basis for collecting information on releases to land and water? Does the City have evidence that such releases pose threats to the health of City residents? On the other hand, the City doesn’t plan to collect data about road dust and vehicles, the main source of PM 2.5. What, then. is the justification for requiring City industries to report relatively minor emissions of PM2.5? Also, those businesses that do report will report the total mass of each contaminant, when it is concentration, not mass, that affects health.

The City will also have challenges making the collected data useful to City residents. For one thing, many sources of local air pollution will not be reported, such as all sources outside of Toronto, and many local sources such as vehicles, space heating, etc.. For another, it is very difficult to translate individual emissions into health outcomes.

For the businesses that must report, the City must do more to integrate the new bylaw with existing federal, provincial and municipal requirements, including s. 9 of the Environmental Protection Act. It is unfair to increase the reporting burden on businesses just because governments can’t coordinate the data they already have.

Comments on the proposal are due by February 5.

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