The town of Hinton is actually big enough for the two of them. The longstanding East River Road air monitoring station got a new counterpart last week as the West Central Airshed Society opened up a new station in Hillcrest.
“We’re adding a station so that we can now have two stations – one on the hill, one in the valley – and together we'll be able to see what the air quality really is,” said Gary Redmond, the non-profit organization’s executive director.
This new station will continuously monitor for the three parameters of the Air Quality Health Index, namely nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone and fine particulate matter, which Redmond said people hear a lot of, particularly during a wildfire.
In addition, it will monitor for sulphur dioxide and total reduced sulphur as does the East River Road station. Those are industrial emissions produced by the Hinton Pulp Mill.
The data can be viewed on the society’s website at www.wcas.ca by clicking on “live air data.” The site offers data – including air speed, relative humidity levels and air temperature – for all of the monitoring stations in its service area. There are 10 airshed societies in the province with 89 total stations.
The station cost more than $300,000 and is situated on a trailer unit with an antenna. It contains an analyzer for each of the pollutants plus data loggers and meteorological monitoring equipment.
Each also requires up to $50,000 per year in operating costs. A technician visits a station at least once a month to calibrate the instruments and determine if replacements are needed.
An airshed is a geographical area where the air is subject to similar conditions of air pollution throughout it.
Large industrial emitters such as the mill are obligated to be major funders for airshed societies.
“They're licensed to operate by the regulator, whether it's Alberta Environment or Alberta Energy Regulator,” Redmond said. “One of the clauses may be that they must contribute to the local airshed, because they pollute the air.”
The societies also receive grants and other financial support from Alberta Environment and Parks and their own membership bases.
Redmond said there are gaps in many communities that should have better air monitoring but struggle to achieve adequate funding. Without any large factories in the town of Jasper, for example, there are no large industrial emitters to commit funding, but finding the funding is still possible with enough creativity and community momentum.
While Jasper doesn’t have a continuous monitoring station, Redmond said it should.
“You want to have a station in Jasper.”
This became especially evident when widespread smoke from wildfires in British Columbia and the United States came through Jasper a few weeks ago.
“When a wildfire hits and puts a big swath of wildfire smoke particulates across an area, that's the airshed right there,” he said.
Each community is unique, meaning some have more industry that affect the airshed, and there are always individual geographical challenges. Hinton, a town of 10,000 people that stretches out approximately 15 kilometres, is a good example for both, Redmond said. Hillcrest and East River Road are far enough away to offer different views of the air quality for Hintonites.
Jasper is a vastly different town than Hinton for multiple reasons. The big industries in Jasper are transport, tourism and recreation, which brings many diesel buses and trains, and a lot of campfires, all of which contribute to poorer air quality. When the town’s power was knocked out because of the Chetamon Wildfire, many residents and businesses resorted to gas generators, which further knocked air quality down.
“We’d love to have a station in Jasper eventually,” Redmond said. “Maybe there's something we can do and apply for grants elsewhere. I'm really open to trying to get one in Jasper. I think we should. It's just the challenges of no big industry to foot the bill.”
While there is no air monitoring station in Jasper, the town does have a few micromonitoring sites. Some local residents have offered their houses to host Purple Air sensors to monitor fine particulate matter. The technology uses passive sensors that bring air through it, which is then monitored by a laser scatter device. Redmond noted that Environment Canada also uses thousands of these around the country.
Purple Air data can be accessed by first visiting WCAS website or by going straight to map.purpleair.com. There, users can click on individual sensor locations and compare local data to other sites around the world.
Members of the public can become citizen scientists and apply for their own sensors through an application on that website.
“These are pretty legit little sensors,” Redmond said. “They're great where wildfire smoke is a particular issue, and they're great when there’s no other monitoring.”
Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh