si-nb-bruce-fitch-220

Environment Minister Bruce Fitch did not say when the air quality data would be made available.

New Brunswick's Department of Environment has begun monitoring air quality in Sussex to create a baseline before any possible shale gas developments in the area.

It’s a proactive step, said Environment Minister Bruce Fitch.

The province's only mobile monitoring unit will stay there for about a year, he said.

"Then they'll move the mobile unit to another location to see if there's any changes from an ambient or baseline in the monitoring."

'It's probably going to give people the evidence that they need to say, 'Look, the shale gas impact, we told you it was going to cause local air quality problems, and here's the data.'' —Gordon Dalzell, clean air activist

Clean air activist Gordon Dalzell is pleased.

"I’m glad to see it's being done because it's probably going to give people the evidence that they need to say, ‘Look, the shale gas impact, we told you it was going to cause local air quality problems, and here's the data,’" he said.

Government officials did not say when the data would be made available.

Air quality improving

Meanwhile, the provincial government says air quality continues to improve across the province, according to 2010 results released Wednesday.

The 17 monitoring sites across the province recorded downward trends for most pollutants, including carbon monoxide.

The report also showed the lowest readings of acid rain across the province since monitoring began in 1986, officials said.

Still, the environment minister said there are areas he'd like to see continue to improve.

"It's a good report, we're seeing some good trends, but that doesn't mean we can take ease or let up," said Fitch.

"We have to continue to make sure the quality of air in the province of New Brunswick will improve over time."

VOCs a concern

nb-gordon-dalzell-220

Clean air activist Gordon Dalzell says volatile organic compounds pose a danger to human health. (CBC)

The department will be keeping a close eye on volatile organic compound levels (VOC) in the Saint John area, Fitch said.

Although the VOC levels have gone down over the years, they remain the highest at Champlain Heights in Saint John.

Any amount can be a danger to human health, according to clean air activists like Dalzell.

"It's encouraging that they'll hopefully continue to go down. But we have to be vigilant and work with industry and our own personal choices to reduce some of these emissions that cause those VOCs, those chemicals," he said.

VOCs also contribute to ground level ozone and smog.

Despite the adverse effects of VOCs, there are no national standards for the compounds in Canada. New Brunswick relies on standards used in Sweden and the U.K.

About 80 per cent of VOCs have come from the United States and Ontario, said Dalzell.

But the government needs to watch the levels at all times, he said.

Shale gas contentious issue

The Alward government has significant opposition to the idea of developing the shale gas industry in the province.

Many groups and citizens have called for a moratorium and are particularly concerned about hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking.

The contentious process involves exploration companies injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.

Opponents say it could have a negative effect on local water supplies and many of them have held protests across the province.

The government has proposed 116 changes to the regulatory framework that oversees the oil and gas industry and in particular the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing.

Citizens have until Sept. 18 to offer input on the changes. A series of public meetings were also held across the province to get feedback.

The new provincial regulations will set out strict rules on protecting the environment.

Natural gas companies will also be subject to higher fines if they break the rules.

Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup has said he'd like the rules to be in place for 2013.