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Levels of benzene in a residential area of Saint John near the Irving Oil refinery are raising alarms. ((CBC))

The air quality in a neighbourhood next to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John is a "grave concern" after a new report showed elevated levels of a carcinogen, according to a clean-air activist.

The Department of Environment issued its annual report this week that showed air quality across the province is generally good.

But the report indicated one air quality monitoring station in Champlain Heights, a residential area of Saint John next to the Irving Oil refinery demonstrated levels of benzene that are raising flags.

Gordon Dalzell, the chairperson of the Saint John Citizens Coalition for Clean Air, said the high benzene levels in the neighbourhood are "not acceptable."

"When you produce gasoline and jet fuel in the volume that they do it's no surprise that you're going to have benzene levels," Dalzell said.

'[The environment minister] said we are going to evaluate and assess these readings. I said that's not good enough. We need an action plan.' — Gordon Dalzell, clean-air activist

"We should not have to compete in the air we breathe with these toxic materials."

An Irving Oil spokesperson said in an email that benzene levels remain below annual averages.

The report, which looked at results for 2008, reflects data from individual air quality monitoring stations around the province.

Benzene, a known carcinogen, is a byproduct of petroleum manufacturing but is also found in vehicle emissions.

Although it has been linked to cancer, there are no Canadian guidelines for emission levels. For reference, the province's environment department uses guidelines from the United Kingdom and Sweden.

The levels recorded at the Champlain Heights station are below the annual levels allowed in those countries, but there are examples where levels have jumped higher than the averages in a 24-hour period.

According to the report, the average benzene output in the neighbourhood was 0.63 parts per billion (ppb) compared to 0.2 at the Forest Hill monitoring station. The U.K. and Swedish guidelines set the limit at 1.5 ppb.

The maximum 24-hour average in Champlain Heights was 2.34 compared to 0.69 at Forest Hills.

Air quality 'anomalies'

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Environment Minister Rick Miles said there were "abnormalities" in the air quality monitoring report. ((CBC))

Environment Minister Rick Miles said the overall averages in the report show air quality is well within Canadian standards and demonstrates that people in Saint John enjoy good air quality.

"There are some anomalies in there but they are something that we are monitoring to make sure that we don't see that trend in other ways," he said.

Dalzell said the elevated benzene levels are a "grave concern" and he was frustrated by the environment minister's reaction to his group during a briefing on the report.

"[Miles] said we are going to evaluate and assess these readings. I said that's not good enough. We need an action plan," Dalzell said.

"You have to come up with a determined, concerted effort to look at what's causing that. And I have good reason to believe it's the Irving Oil refinery, since it's right next door to us."

Benzene is also released by vehicle exhausts but Dalzell said it is unlikely that can explain the levels shown at Champlain Heights.

Air quality has been monitored in Saint John since 1961 and now has more than 30 test sites set up around the southern New Brunswick city.

Although the report paints a largely reassuring picture, some people in Saint John say they have a different experience.

"It makes it hard to breathe at times," said Terrence Williams, an asthma sufferer who lives close to the oil refinery.

"To me it seems like if I get out of the city especially, I can breathe so much better. I come back to the city and it's right bad."