Air issues Conference Cuts Through Disciplinary Divisions

By Bill Corbett

Air pollution doesn’t respect boundaries. That reality has prompted governments of the world to sign treaties to combat acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming. Similarly, the battle to understand and resolve the complex issues of air pollution doesn’t respect professional boundaries. For that reason, engineers increasingly need to work with biologists, climatologists, economists, government agencies and public-interest groups to tackle one of the most pressing issues of the coming century.

This multi-disciplinary approach was the overriding theme at the Emerging Air Issues for the 21st Century Conference, held Sept. 20-24 in Calgary. This international specialty conference was sponsored by APEGGA, the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists, the Canadian Prairie and Northern Section of the Air & Waste Management Association, and the Air & Waste Management Association. The conference brought together some 250 delegates with various professional, environmental backgrounds from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The conference also attracted nearly 30 exhibitors and offered five training workshops related to air quality management. The conference was first of its kind in Western Canada to bring together the forces of four major organizations in order to promote a multi-disciplinary approach for managing air issues among environmental professionals.

"We have to start looking at air issues in a consultative and cooperative approach and avoid tunnel-vision thinking," said General Conference Chair Paresh Thanawala, P.Eng., president of 2000 Environmental Services in Calgary. "We have to try to understand what other disciplines are doing and can do to manage air and other environmental issues.

"Engineers, for example, brought about the technology that gave us the modern standards of living, but in doing so created the air pollution problem, "says Mr. Thanawala. "But engineers are also going to be the leaders in solving the problem, because they can offer state-of-the-art control technologies and processes to reduce air pollution."

Engineering Solutions

Some of these engineering solutions include state of the art valves and flanges to reduce fugitive air emissions, low-nitrogen-oxide burners for improved combustion, ultra-high-efficiency baghouses to control emissions of particulate matter and regenerative/recuperative thermal oxidizers to control emissions of volatile organic compounds.

But engineers must also look beyond their own expertise. "Engineers are used to looking at things from a control and compliance perspective, to designing technology so it meets regulatory requirements," said Conference Technical Co-chair Nina Novak, P.Eng., P.Biol. "But it’s crucial that they understand why they need to do that. They should understand the toxicological basis and the biological implications behind those regulations and air quality impacts. In other words, they really need to understand why they’re doing things instead of just responding to avoid the negative consequences of being non-compliant." During the three-day conference, delegates listened to more than 60 technical presentations on topics related to Canadian and international air quality regulations, advances in air quality monitoring and controlling air pollutants, and innovative approaches to air quality management.

Global Warming

Scientists also provided the latest research findings on the always controversial issue of global warming. Given current trends in carbon dioxide and related emissions, several speakers said, global surface temperatures could rise by about two degrees Celsius by 2050. The increase could be even greater in parts of Canada, resulting in wetter winters but drier springs and summers.

"The implications of climate change for the boreal forest could be quite severe," said Robert Stewart, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Ottawa. He said the Canadian boreal forest’s southern boundary could move 300-to-500 kilometres north over time and the permafrost line continue its northward retreat. The good news, he said, "is forest managers have a lot of tools available to deal with climatic change."

Similarly, Canada’s prairie farmers may well adapt to temperature increases over the coming decades. "Global circulation models suggest it could be five-to-six degrees Celsius warmer over crop areas of Alberta with a doubling of carbon dioxide levels," said James Byrne, director of the Water Resources Institute at the University of Lethbridge. While that would make summers hotter and drier, it would allow farmers to plant earlier in the year and take advantage of warmer spring temperatures and wetter soils from higher winter precipitation. On the other hand, he said, farm economies in the developing world would be less able to quickly respond to such climate changes.

The oil industry is more concerned about the short-term political climate. It worries that the Alberta based industry, which produces the lion’s share of Canada’s energy, might be unfairly targeted under Canadian commitments to further C02 reductions. "Fifty per cent of Canada’s production of oil and gas ends up outside Canada, yet the upstream emissions are borne by Canada," David Manning, president of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in the conference luncheon address. "We’re looking for a balanced approach that is sustainable both economically and environmentally."

Bottom-Line Benefits

In the long run, conference delegates heard, efforts to significantly reduce air pollutants should also benefit the bottom line. Maureen Cropper, PhD, professor of economics at the University of Maryland and a World Bank economist, said that 25 years under two Clean Air Acts in the United States have resulted in compliance costs of $500 billion and health benefits (primarily increased longevity) of as much as $22 trillion.