Air quality top of mind for some Quebec City voters this election

·4 min read
Maïsa Beaudry said she would like provincial candidates to take a stronger stance against toxic emissions.  (Franca Mignacca/CBC - image credit)
Maïsa Beaudry said she would like provincial candidates to take a stronger stance against toxic emissions. (Franca Mignacca/CBC - image credit)

For some Quebec City residents, the upcoming provincial election may hinge on one key thing: clean air.

"I think the issue of air quality must really become a central preoccupation for our different candidates," said Maïsa Beaudry, who lives in the Vieux-Limoilou neighbourhood with her two children.

Beaudry said she has been dealing with thick grey dust on her windows and patio ever since moving there 12 years ago.

The area, which is near the Quebec City port, has the highest concentration of nickel in the air in all of Canada. The metal, which can be carcinogenic, is loaded onto ships at the port.

The CAQ government actually increased the daily limit on nickel emissions five-fold in April, from 14 nanograms per cubic metre (ng/m³) to a maximum of 70 ng/m³.

The neighbourhood is also home to some highways, several factories and a garbage incinerator that releases carbon monoxide and other contaminants into the atmosphere.

A study conducted by the Quebec City regional health authority in 2019 found that people living in the Limoilou-Vanier and Lower Town neighbourhoods — which have some of the lowest average household incomes in the city — have more health problems than those living elsewhere in the capital region.

Franca Mignacca/CBC
Franca Mignacca/CBC

Limoilou residents also breathe in four times more nickel particles than those living in other parts of the city, according to a report obtained by Radio-Canada last spring.

Beaudry said she worries about the impact of the air quality on her children's health. Her seven-year-old and nine-year-old have asthma and skin problems, and she wonders whether staying in Limoilou is contributing to their issues.

"If we realize it's our neighbourhood making us sick, we wouldn't stay in Limoilou, unfortunately," she said.

Beaudry said she would like the provincial parties to propose concrete actions to reduce emissions in the city and elsewhere in the province.

Controversial increase

The CAQ's decision to increase the daily nickel emission limit drew criticism from several citizen groups who have been monitoring air quality near the port.

"That was felt by a lot of citizens here like a slap in the face," said Raymond Poirier, president of the Vieux-Limoilou neighborhood council.

"You've been asking 10 years for people to do something, and they decided to do the exact opposite."

Franca Mignacca/CBC
Franca Mignacca/CBC

Isabelle Arseneau, a mother of two young boys who was born and raised in the neighbourhood, says she too was upset with the CAQ's decision.

"With everything we know, as a mother, to be imposed a new norm like this, for me I take it as an act of violence," she said.

"It shows me a certain contempt for the people here, and what we ultimately experience, what we go through on a daily basis."

History of air pollution

It's not the first time residents in the area have had to deal with dust and toxic emissions.

In October 2012, layers of red dust covered people's cars and homes. The dust was later revealed to contain iron oxide.

Franca Mignacca/CBC
Franca Mignacca/CBC

Poirier said the red dust crisis was one of the reasons he was enraged when the Legault government raised the nickel emission limit.

"There have been problems on and off for quite a while before that, so it's kind of a historical problem that we have some trouble getting the governments to address year after year after year," he said.

Franca Mignacca/CBC
Franca Mignacca/CBC

He said the problem is that Limoilou has multiple pollution sources that, combined together, "create a kind of toxic soup in the air."

Poirier started a citizen-led scientific program called Limoilair to monitor emissions. His program is currently working on installing 75 air monitors to analyze small particles in the air.

Arseneau said while she is not really involved in provincial politics, she is happy with the stance that Québec Solidaire candidate Sol Zanetti, her riding's outgoing MNA, has taken on the issue.

Zanetti has been very critical of the new norm and has called on the Legault government to repeal it.

The CAQ candidate running against Zanetti, Christiane Gamache, said in an email that her party was "very sensitive" to the issue of air quality in Limoilou.

She said her party is working with the city of Quebec to add sampling stations in the neighbourhood and that it also set up an independent committee to identify the contaminants that are the most risky for the environment and human health.

The CAQ government has repeatedly defended its decision to increase the norm, saying it consulted with provincial health authorities before moving forward and that its implementation of an annual limit would keep the population safe.

The Parti Québécois candidates in the Quebec City area have said they want to increase the number of air quality monitoring stations in Limoilou.

They've also said they will make sure the data on air quality is more readily available to the public.

The Quebec Conservative Party candidate for Taschereau in Quebec City, Marie-Josée Hélie, said she would follow the recommendations by Quebec's public health institute on nickel emissions. She is proposing an independent public health study on what norms to establish.

The CBC also reached out to the Quebec Liberal Party. This article will be updated with their positions upon receiving their response.