A Saint John clean air activist is calling for a more timely release of the New Brunswick air quality report by the provincial Environment Department.

The report for 2011 was released this week, 21 months after the end of that calendar year.

Gordon Dalzell, head of the Saint John Citizens Coalition for Clean Air, says that's unacceptable and is calling for air quality monitoring information to be made available in real time.

"We need to be able to go to our computer, go to the Department of Environment website, and go to the various air quality monitors in your neighbourhood," said Dalzell.

"So if there's an incident … we'll be able to see immediately. And we may take action, say not to go out and play soccer with the kids all afternoon, and wait for this thing to settle out."

Dalzell noted the federal government maintains an Air Quality Health Index for Saint John and other centres that is updated three times daily, using information from the province's monitors. However, it doesn't track all the pollutants, but simply notes the health risk from air quality at one city monitor, ranging from low to high.

"So we really don't get accurate day-to-day information," he said.

Data must be sent to lab, government says

Lisa Harrity, a spokesperson for the Environment Department, said it takes 18 months to publish the report because much of the data has to be sent away to a lab to be analyzed before it can be released.

Dalzell said the coalition is happy with the improvements shown in the 2011 report, but says there is still a tremendous amount of pollution streaming into the city's air.

si-nb-irving-refinery-220

The Irving Oil Ltd. refinery puts tonnes of pollutants into the air every day. (CBC)

The report found no exceedances — instances of chemicals being above acceptable standards — for nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The report also found volatile organic compounds are well below guidelines and acid rain levels are low.

However, there were brief spikes in fine particulate matter and reduced sulphur. Ten exceedances of the one-hour objective for total reduced sulphur were recorded in Saint John, primarily at the stations monitoring the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery and the Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. mill.  Those instances resulted in 58 exceedances of the 24-hour objective, which uses a rolling average calculation.

Stephen Clayden, the New Brunswick Museum's curator of botany, uses his own air monitors to record the amount of sensitive lichen observed growing on the city's trees and rocks.

'Is it acceptable to have 490 tonnes of [volatile organic compounds] coming from one major facility, source, in Saint John? Or how about 2.1 tonnes of benzene?'- Gordon Dalzell, Saint John Clean Air Coalition

He said lichens that had all but disappeared in parts of Saint John by the 1970s have made a comeback in places like King's Square and Fernhill Cemetery.

"One of the key pollutants for a lot of them has been sulphur dioxide, which is also the major contributor to acid rain, and that's been a big problem in the past," Clayden said.

"That's how we know that … there have been quite striking changes that have occurred."

Despite the changes, Dalzell maintains they do not erase the fact that the refinery alone puts tonnes of pollutants into the air every day.

"Is it acceptable to have 490 tonnes of [volatile organic compounds] coming from one major facility, source, in Saint John? Or how about 2.1 tonnes of benzene?" Dalzell said.

"They say they're within the normal range, or within acceptable limits, I say it's unacceptable to have these types of levels … To me, that is not acceptable and these monitors do not give the full story."