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The shadow of power 

Tufts Cove could slow down visiting athletes, says Tim Bousquet.

Run the 100-metres in under 10 seconds while breathing sulphur dioxide, and watch out for splotches of oil lying about the track.

That’s pretty much what the people who want to bring the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Halifax are asking of the world’s elite athletes. The bid committee proposes to host the games at Shannon Park, quite literally in the shadow of the three smokestacks of Nova Scotia Power’s Tufts Cove power generation plant.

To be fair, NSP has made strides in reducing emissions from the plant. In 2000, Tufts Cove was re-engineered so it could burn both high-sulphur oil and less-polluting natural gas. Last year electrostatic precipitators, which remove much of the particulate matter in the emissions, were added to two of the stacks. Both federal and provincial regulators report that the Tufts Cove plant now meets all environmental laws.

Still, local politicians say the plant is a menace. Last week, deputy mayor Sue Uteck directly attributed high asthma rates in Halifax to Tufts Cove, an assessment with which Jim Smith, city councillor for the area around the plant, concurs. “They talk about problems in Halifax, but it’s even worse for residents right around the plant,” says Smith.

“They’ve added those precipitators for $20 million so they can burn more oil,” Smith says, adding that while the plant can burn natural gas, increasingly it is burning oil. “NSP is selling its natural gas outside the province and burning cheaper oil at Tufts Cove.”

Data from Environment Canada appear to back him up. Sulphur dioxide emissions from the plant dropped after 2000, but they’ve increased over 600 percent since—from 1,905 tonnes in 2002 to 13,580 tonnes in 2005.

Nearby residents have long put up with “globs of oil” landing on their cars and houses, their clothes and gardens, Smith says. “They’re essentially eating it. Maybe it’s gotten better in the last year, but it’s still a big concern.”

But the pols can’t have it both ways—the plant can’t be of major concern to residents, but no big deal for athletes competing under its stacks. They should talk to Andreas Flouris, a grad student at Dalhousie University. In a paper published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, Flouris looked at five different air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, found at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. He concluded that the athletes’ performance and overall health would likely be adversely affected.

“About 15 percent of elite athletes have asthma,” he tells me. “That’s because they’re training and competing in polluted air.”

Flouris says the high sulphur dioxide emissions from Tufts Cove are an “obvious concern” to Games athletes.

But let’s not too quickly take our attention away from the thousands of people who live and work around Tufts Cove. Or from Shannon Park Elementary School, which shares the proposed site for the Commonwealth Games, its schoolyard about 100 metres from the power plant.

The school was built in the 1950s. Environmental monitoring didn’t start until the late 1980s, and even now no one knows what effect the plant has had or continues to have on the neighbourhood.

“That’s something we’d like to have,” says Smith. “But we don’t have the information. It would take a health study, I guess.”

Yep. If we’ve got the $785 million budgeted for the Commonwealth Games, then we’ve got the money needed to find out once and for all how the Tufts Cove power plant has affected its neighbours. Once we know, we can talk about how to compensate those who have been hurt, and how to generate power without hurting anyone’s health—athletes or school children.

That’d be a great legacy for the Commonwealth Games.

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