Open City

Emissions Data, Not Hot Air

By Nik Garkusha
Published April 04, 2011

Headlines like "Gas plant plume poses 'no threat'" and "Plant's yellow plume no cause for alarm" about Halton Hills Generating Station emissions, as well as statements like "It was just scrap; Plenty of smoke, little danger" mentioned in Hamilton Spectator posts are great at driving home one message: Keep Calm and Carry On.

But while it worked to raise the morale of the British during WWII, it's far from putting me at ease. "No cause for alarm?" "No concerns regarding environmental impact?" Really?

Thank you, Mr. spokesperson for the company (TransCanada) whose plant is worrying my neighbors enough to want to complain to the Ministry of the Environment.

I appreciate that pollution may be within "normal limits", but wouldn't it be nice to know if it's on the higher end of the norm, bordering the limit, or way way below what the industry average is?

Our tap water is probably within "normal limits", but many of us choose to filter it first before we drink it. All food in grocery stores has to be up to health standards to "meet regulations", but many choose to buy organic.

Baby products almost certainly pass safety regulations, but we still research them, we read energy star ratings on appliances, look for car safety data - all to ensure our families consume only the "best", according to your criteria.

So why wouldn't I care about emissions data for a plant only three minutes away from my home? Why wouldn't I want to have a choice to drill into the data on the volume of chemicals that leave that smoke stack and enter my back yard, my home, my child's lungs?

Oh, I am no chemist, nor am I an environmental activist. I'm just a guy who likes to have an option to read the ingredients label to understand what I'm consuming, if I so choose!

That's where Open Data becomes such a critical factor in building trust not only between the government and its citizens, but also between companies and their customers.

Even though Environment Canada gathers and makes publically available pollution data in its NPRI database, its most recent data is two years old!

That's why I couldn't find any data on the Halton Hills plant in, a site that visualizes NPRI data for any address in Canada. It's because the Halton Hills plant began its commercial operations in 2010 according to Ontario Power Authority's website.

This is bigger than the government regulations. It's an opportunity for the company whose operations are causing concerns to step up and share the actual data for what's being released in the air.

Yes, TransCanada, here's your chance to build a solid reputation with us, residents of Halton, who drive by your plant daily, wondering what and how much is being emitted from your stacks.

I love your Public Safety and Awareness page and your Corporate Responsibility Reports, but how about the actual emissions data for your operations? Can we see that?

So, how about it, TransCanada? Put your money where your mouth is. Prove that there's nothing to be worried about by opening your emissions data.

Let us make up our mind based on the numbers, not your reassuring statements. Otherwise, it just seems like you're blowing smoke.

first published on OpenHalton

Nik Garkusha is an open data and open source geek, technology evangelist and consultant. He is the founder of He is also the Open Source Strategy Lead at Microsoft (


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By Liberty Bell (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2011 at 12:32:38

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By No Reason to Worry (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2011 at 14:03:55 in reply to Comment 61847

That's too funny. To "discover otherwise" you'd probably need some information to work with. Ever heard of Data Journalism?

But according to you, as long as you're told "there is no reason to worry", just take that as gospel. All the while making fun of those who try to get to the facts.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 13:57:38

If there's one thing I've learned from Fukushima it's that the perceived ignorance of the general populace is a perfect reason to keep the general populace ignorant. We wouldn't want anyone to panic*, would we?

*Panic is defined here as (but not limited to): concern, public opposition, citing medical journals, writing articles, getting a medical check-up or using less electricity.

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By Curious (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2011 at 14:40:07 in reply to Comment 61849

Undustrial, that isn't the point. I believe the earlier criticism, not very well expressed, is that one could ask for data on say the cows in Jerseyville and their effect on the air quality about them. The farmer is saying its ok, but really, how much are those farts impacting that neighbourhood??? It isn't quite, but just about as much of a stretch.

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By nikg (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 15:35:10 in reply to Comment 61851

I agree that not everything has collected/existing data about it, and that certain data - even if existed - may have marginal utility. But when the issue is health, and the potential impact is significant, why wouldn't you not care to have access to the data??

(i.e. do you live next door to an industrial plant and have no interest at all in learning what it produces and how it may affect the health of your family)

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 15:22:00

Great piece Nik. I had never heard of although I also don't know how to really read that data. Lakeport is still on there with the data being 3 years old. It rated good while Dofasco is exceptionally poor at the one location? Stelco faired well but the plants were probably shut down at the time.

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By nikg (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 15:37:16 in reply to Comment 61853 uses 2008 NPRI data from Environment Canada, which at the time of launch (last year) was the latest & greatest. NPRI since released 2009 data, but because of the way it's made available, it's not an easy "pull" of the latest dataset. Some work/conversion/aggregation needs to be done first.

The Ratings are relative to the other companies in the same industry.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2011 at 15:25:43

I cannot imagine that any company would ever voluntarily provide pollution numbers to the general public. I know if I were to run any kind of company I would never volunteer such information. Not for any nefarious reasons, just because there is no upside for the company. The vast majority of people have not concept of what those numbers mean or their implications. As far as just comparing them to the acceptable limits, those limits are known to change. Those limits can also change according to whatever place you live. If Chromium goes from 28 PPB to 12 PPB in that significant? How about Arsenic doing the same? ( P.S. I believe the current standards call for Arsenic to be below 10 PPB)

I really appreciate your comment about filtering water and yet you never mentioned bottled water which has lower standards then municipal water and are there even standards for water filters? The whole filtered and bottled water industry just highlights the problem with any company posting such numbers. The municipal water standards are amazingly high and yet for some reason be it advertising, misguided fear or ignorance the bottled water and water filtering markets are amazingly large. When was the last time you had your water filter checked for bacteria? Does anybody ever do it? Yet we have this filter media in our water filters for weeks at a time. The charcoal and sand does nothing to limit bacteria in fact the exact opposite is true they could provide the perfect place for bacteria to flourish. Just ask any aquarium aficionado about bacterial water treatment. Normally this is beneficial bacteria but if the conditions are just a little bit off then really nasty things can happen.

The whole industry is driven not by actual benefits but by perceived benefits which can and often times are very different. So much has been documented about the overall negative impact of bottled water for pretty dubious benefits and yet so many people insist on buying bottled water.

Organic food is also a crap shoot. Surely the organic farmer down the road can be trusted but buying organic grapes from Guatemala? There are no universal standards for organic labeling products. How do you police it? How do you measure it? If I take apples I grow in my orchard and label them organic even though I sprayed them before and after the fruit set way back in May can you tell that? Can it be measured? Does it matter? It matters to the grower because he can charge more for the organic apples. Wherever there is the possibility to make money you know that somebody is going to abuse the protocols. What stops the guy at the market from taking regular oranges with small blemishes and simply labeling them as organic?

Yes, I know, I am very skeptical.

The pollutants that the smokestack 3 blocks away pumps into the air makes a lot less of an impact on your air quality then the smokestacks in the Ohio Valley do. I know it looks bad when the smokestack just down the road pumps out nasty looking crap and it in fact may be bad but realistically it is so high up in the air and so close that it really has little affect on you.

Imagine how so many residents and fire fighters in Hamilton during and after the Plastimet fire feel about those toxic emissions.

If you are going to worry about toxins in your environment be aware of what you worry about.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 21:54:20 in reply to Comment 61854

I can't speak for Guatemala, but Canadian "Organic" standards are very stringent. It's more than saying "I don't use pesticides" - you're not allowed to throw anything non-organic on your compost heap - doing so could threaten your certification for years. It's changed a bunch in recent years, but definitely not something ya'd do to your farm for fun or easy money.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 03:27:00 in reply to Comment 61863

I agree that our standards for organic labeling is quite high, that is why I made the remark about the organic farmer down the road. Just how enforceable are these standards? If our friendly neighbourhood farmer decides to throw some non organic waste onto his compost pile how will that be detectable and by who? What about all the other people in the supply chain? If your local groceteria decides to relabel some bananas as organic that are not who will be able to tell? If they do somehow get found out what are their consequences? I am sure that there are some laws dealing with mislabeling things but in the end what are the real and direct consequences. Just look at the violations that are found in restaurants on an ongoing basis, what are their consequences? Very seldom is a kitchen ever shut down. If letting raw chicken leak juices onto the desert does not get the place shut down do you believe that an almost unmeasurable level of pesticide will result in anything?

Standards are all well and good but how measurable and enforceable are they? Having standards that are not measurable and enforceable might just be worse that no standards at all. The typical chemical levels in our food is quite low and even with the best organic practices I doubt they can be brought to zero.

A little while ago I saw organic salmon being sold in the store, Fortinos I believe. I am under the impression that all salmon farms are in the ocean, typically in the Atlantic. How can anybody stop the salmon from eating anything that happens to get into one of the pens? I understand that I am a lot more skeptical than the average bear but what are the actual differences in the chemical levels between ordinary farmed salmon and organic farmed salmon versus wild salmon?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 17:04:40 in reply to Comment 61867

Organic farmed salmon? That's a good one. And it makes your point pretty well. There's way too much money in "organics" as a marketing fad to trust anything based on supermarket labelling alone.

Know your farmer. That's the solution. Chat at the market. Join a local CSA. Visit their farm and do some work. Ask around. Do some research. The local organics movement around here is really friendly and always willing to talk your ear off.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 17:46:17 in reply to Comment 61854

In case anyone missed the article on fluoridation, some drink bottled water - despite the good sense of your observations - to get away from KC's toxic waste put into tap water for very questionable dental benefits! I'll be happy to stop when the 'money system' stops trying to force the wrong medicine into my bones, brain and organs - all for the supposed sake of a few who won't brush.

That the truth can be complex works both ways.

Comment edited by BobInnes on 2011-04-04 17:48:53

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By nikg (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 17:24:57 in reply to Comment 61854

@Mr.Meister -

Great point about companies volunteering their information. Why would they do it? Ask NIKE -- just today announcing they are hiring an Open Data expert to help release their sustainability data.

A ton of effort goes into writing Social Responsibility & Corporate Responsibility reports, but there are specific industries have have the data that can clearly outline the true impact they have on environment, etc. Now, the question is whether you'd willingly share that data, being concerned about possible mis-interpretation or backlash of the public who has the facts & data in front of them.

I also agree with you about industries being driven by "perceived benefits" versus "actual benefits", which only support my point about open data being a catalyst of getting down to facts, and how you interpret the data is a different issue then. We're still at the stage of being in the dark as far as any of the data to answer many of your questions.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 02:42:46 in reply to Comment 61860

I have no doubt that Nike is going to release some numbers, and those sustainability numbers would be a great place to start. Sustainability is so in vogue these days after all. Can you imagine Nike releasing numbers on how many sweatshops they run? How much pollution they pump out? I sure cannot. Whatever numbers they do release I am sure will paint the company in a good light. Why would any company release numbers that show how terrible they really are?

Governments are very different from private companies. We have a right to know the data about virtually everything that happens within our city. (freedom of information) We have very little in the way of rights to know what is happening inside a private company and nor should we.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2011 at 22:04:12

I live in a low income area not far from a LOT of smokestacks and industry. We're nationally renowned for pollution. I'm blocks from the Plastimet site. North Hamilton frequently cries about big ugly belches of smoke from plants like Dofasco. And you'd be impressed about how many solid answers from both industry and ministry we get, and how quickly they come after it happens. It also often gets covered in the Spec.

So yeah, if I lived in Halton Hills, I'd expect some answers right about now.

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By Undustrial Overload (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 21:35:54

Give it a rest or write a book; some of us like this site but are tired of your opining. Get over yourself.

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted April 06, 2011 at 07:02:10

More Smoke and screens by the big smoke. Bottom line, if its a chemical and you can smell it chances are it's bad for your health. To believe anything less makes you on of the sheep just, like the doctor ordered.

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