Environment Canada has drastically cut back on its monitoring of air pollution that can cause health problems for Canadians, reassigning scientists involved in that monitoring to "other priorities."

In an email to CBC News, a department spokesman says Environment Canada is still providing "world class analysis" and will continue to "monitor the ozone through other means," but did not provide details on what those are.

The department was responding to recent warnings by leading atmospheric scientists that Canada's cuts to its ozone monitoring program are affecting the world's ability to monitor air quality and ozone depletion.

Environment Canada monitoring stations closed

Five LIDAR air-pollution monitoring stations, which measure particulates in the atmosphere, have closed in recent months:

  • Whistler B.C.
  • Bratts Lake, Sask.
  • Egbert, Ont.
  • Sherbrooke, Que.
  • Acadia University, Nova Scotia

A sixth station, at the University of British Columbia, remains open.

The department also closed ozone monitoring stations at Eureka, Nunavut and Egbert, Ont.

On Monday, five scientists from high-profile U.S. universities and NASA released a scathing critique of Canada's cuts to its ozone monitoring, saying it is jeopardizing the world's ability to watch for holes in the ozone layer and pollutants high in the atmosphere. The paper was published in the Eos, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union that represents 61,000 Earth and space scientists from around the world. Information gathered in Canada feeds into worldwide networks.

It took Environment Canada more than 24 hours to reply to CBC's requests for comment on the scientists' critique. Spokesman Mark Johnson replied in an email that the ozone scientists haven't lost their jobs but are working on other "priorities."

"The number of staff in measurement activities for the monitoring of ozone, tropospheric pollution and atmospheric transport of toxic chemicals has remained constant but their work now includes other departmental priorities," he said. "The distribution of funding and staff time has been reprofiled to better address the priorities of the department."

Johnson didn't say what those priorities are.

Last fall Environment Canada warned that 700 scientific and research positions could be affected by budget cuts. Sixty scientists were told in January they were losing their jobs.

Canada has been a world leader in monitoring ozone. Dropping levels of ozone, which acts as the Earth's sunscreen, can cause cancer. Canada's ozone research led to the daily UV indexes that are issued to the public.

Observation stations shut down

The "tropospheric pollution" Johnson refers to are pollution particles high in the atmosphere caused by anything that burns — emissions from industry, cars, forest fires and volcanic eruptions. Those particles are part of the air pollution that can cause lung and heart problems.

mi-duck-lidar-714821

Professor Thomas Duck says it is outrageous that Environment Canada is cutting back on air pollution monitoring stations similar to one seen projecting a beam behind him in this 2005 file photo. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

They are monitored by light detection and ranging (LIDAR) observation stations that shoot a type of radar into the atmosphere and then measure the light that bounces off the pollution.

Five of the six stations set up by Environment Canada across the country have been shut down in the last few months. The LIDAR stations were created because of the concern over the effect of particulate pollution, also known as aerosols, on people's health. The LIDAR stations are also crucial in monitoring the ash from volcanic eruptions that can interfere with air travel, like the ones that occurred in Iceland in recent years.

"Environment Canada decided there was a strategic need for an aerosol monitoring system for human health and aircraft safety," said Prof. Thomas Duck, a professor of atmospheric science and a LIDAR expert at Dalhousie University. "Air quality forecasters use that data, now they no longer have access to it."

In fact, it appears the LIDAR technology is sitting around unused right now. According to Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson, there is "no operational or service client for continuous LIDAR measurement." 

Johnson points out that the stations, which are contained within trailers so they can be moved to new locations, could be used for research in the oilsands.

"Environment Canada has the capacity to move and utilize the LIDAR instruments. We plan to incorporate LIDAR technology into the oil sands monitoring system. Details will be determined as we develop specific implementation plans for the oil sands monitoring system." Johnson said in an email.

Duck says it's "outrageous" that Environment Canada science and technology built to help protect public health is being cut.

"To say they have the same ability to monitor pollution is simply laughable."