How’s the Air Up There?
Monitoring Air Quality in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region
by Jane Percy, WBEA

At the intersection of nature, opportunity, adventure, commerce, and open sky lies the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. This vast 68,000-km2 region, situated in north-eastern Alberta, is a hub of activity for the Athabasca Oil Sands and home to over 100,000 people.

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WBEA monitors air quality in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the Athabasca Oil Sands Region.

There’s no denying – air quality is important to the citizens of this area.

That’s why the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) has monitored this important resource since 1998. How is this accomplished, where are the data available, and why are the results important?

WBEA has 19 fixed-in-place air monitoring stations, six of which are located in Conklin, Anzac, Fort McMurray (two stations), Fort McKay, and Fort Chipewyan. WBEA also has four portable monitoring stations that can operate at industry sites or in communities for defined periods of time.

WBEA's continuous air monitoring stations in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
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WBEA’s Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray station is one of six community air monitoring stations in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Community monitoring stations provide residents with hourly updated data on air concentrations for a whole range of pollutants – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. WBEA’s air analyzers monitor the air for specific pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and total reduced sulphur. WBEA’s real-time air quality data and historical data, from 1998 to the present, can be found on WBEA’s website.

The provincial government sets Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives (AAAQO) to protect Alberta’s air quality and human health. Let’s take a look at some 2014 data from WBEA’s community air monitoring stations. The existing AAAQOs are indicated on the graphs for reference.

Sulphur Dioxide SO2

In the RMWB, sulphur dioxide is emitted almost exclusively (99% of emissions) from industrial stacks at oil sands operations. Maximum 1-hour concentrations at WBEA community air monitoring stations ranged between 87.9 parts per billion (ppb) (Patricia McInnes-Fort McMurray) to 7.4 ppb (Fort Chipewyan). 90% of all 1-hour concentrations measured in 2014 were below 2.6 ppb (Patricia McInnes-Fort McMurray). There were no exceedances of the 1-hour AAAQO for sulphur dioxide, which is 172 ppb, at WBEA community air monitoring stations in 2014.

In 2014, community station Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay (15ppb) exceeded the 99th percentile SO2 Trigger 2 concentration of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). No community stations exceeded the LARP Trigger 3 or 4 concentrations.

Maximum 1-hour SO2.

Particulate Matter (PM2.5)

PM2.5 is emitted mainly from fossil fuel combustion and biomass burning, including forest fires. Daily 24-hour average concentrations in 2014 ranged between 206.4 µg m-3 (Fort Chipewyan) to 62.2 µg m-3 (Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray). The 24-hour AAAQO was exceeded at Fort Chipewyan (12 times), Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay (8), Patricia McInnes-Fort McMurray (9), Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray (10), and Anzac (7). As in most years, AAAQO exceedance can be attributed mainly to forest fires.

Maximum 24-hour PM2.5.
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Racks of air analyzers inside WBEA’s air monitoring stations draw in and analyze outdoor air—24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Smoke from regional forest fires, pictured, is a significant source of particulate matter.

 

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

NO2 is not emitted directly, but is rapidly converted in the atmosphere from nitric oxide (NO) emitted from fixed stacks, mine fleets, boilers, and non-industry sources. In 2014, maximum 1-hour concentrations at WBEA’s community air monitoring stations ranged between 164.5 ppb (Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray) to 21.2 ppb (Fort Chipewyan). 90% of all 1-hour concentrations were below 24.5 ppb (Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray). There was one exceedance of the 1-hour AAAQO in 2014 (Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray), and it was attributed to the presence of heavy equipment working next to the station.

In 2014, community stations Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay (32.9 ppb) and Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray (48.3 ppb) exceeded the 99th percentile NO2 Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) Trigger 2 concentration (30 ppb). No community stations exceeded the Trigger 3 or 4 concentrations.

Maximum 1-hour NO2.
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WBEA technician, Kendra Thomas, demonstrates a particulate matter sampler to GIRLS Inc. summer campers during their visit to a WBEA air monitoring station.

Total Reduced Sulphurs (TRS)

TRS are a class of reduced sulphurs that are emitted mainly by industrial sources, and include the chemical compounds hydrogen sulphide, carbon disulphide, carbonyl sulphide, dimethyl sulphide, dimethyl disulphide, and methyl mercaptan. These pollutants are known to contribute to odours. In 2014, maximum 1-hour TRS concentrations at WBEA community air monitoring stations ranged between 9.4 ppb (Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay) to 3.5 ppb (Patricia McInnes-Fort McMurray). 90% of all 1-hour concentrations were below 0.8 ppb (Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay). WBEA developed and utilizes a reporting protocol where all occurrences of 1-hour TRS values greater than 10 ppb are reported immediately to regional stakeholders.

 

 

 

 

 

Maximum 1-hour TRS.

Why are WBEA’s air monitoring data of interest to residents of the RMWB?

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The AQHI is available on WBEA’s website, our mobile app, and on LCD signs in Fort McMurray and Anzac. Due to regional forest fires in June 2015, the AQHI registered a Very High Health Risk, pictured.

  • WBEA’s data contribute to the Air Quality Health Index, a public information tool developed by governments. The AQHI is reported at our Anzac, Athabasca Valley-Fort McMurray, Fort McKay South, Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay, and Fort Chipewyan stations. Our data also contribute to the Fort McKay Air Quality Index (FMAQI), for our Bertha Ganter-Fort McKay station. The FMAQI, developed by Fort McKay, adds measurements of odour-causing pollutants (TRS, THC) and SO2 to the pollutants measured (NO2, O3, and PM5) to calculate the AQHI.
  • The AQHI and FMAQI have been developed to address different objectives, and they cannot be directly compared. The AQHI informs the public on the risk to health as affected by concentrations of three air pollutants. The FMAQI includes the AQHI calculation as a first step, and then it adds concentrations of TRS, THC, and SO2 to derive the index value. The FMAQI informs the public on changes in air quality without attributing a risk to health.
  • WBEA’s data are also used to support environmental impact assessments, for industry approvals to operate, and in validation of regional dispersion modeling.

WBEA’s data, updated hourly and displayed at www.wbea.org, provide RMWB residents with a credible source of information about regional air quality.

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