It might not have looked like it last week, with an air quality advisory in effect, but Prince George industries, the permitted sources of air pollution, are cleaning up their act.
Since 2005, according to the provincial environment ministry, there has been a 27 per cent reduction in the total airshed loading of PM2.5 particles, the types of pollutants that go deep into the lungs and cause the greatest health damage to humans.
Maureen Bilawchuk, environmental management section head of the Ministry of Environment, said the PM2.5 decrease can be attributed to better technology used by pulp mills to trap stack emissions, reduced operating hours for some industries due to economic shutdowns, and the elimination of some air pollution sources.
The city's three pulp mills are responsible for 88 per cent of particulate matter emissions but only about 30 per cent of PM2.5 emissions come from industrial sources. Bilawchuk said as a result of the work of groups like the Prince George Air Improvement Roundtable (PGAIR) the city's industrial polluters are voluntarily making changes to reduce their atmospheric imprint.
"That 27 per cent is incredible," said Bilawchuk. "In 2007, the PGAIR roundtable sat and we put out a stretch goal and by 2016 we wanted to see a 40 per cent reduction in particulate matter in Prince George. The tracking of industrial emissions is just one piece of the pie.
"In 2007 it was identified that permitted industry was responsible for 20-30 per cent [of PM2.5] and over time we've tried to understand what's happening with the rail, residential sources and commercial sources, and that [PM.2.5 reduction] is probably closer to 30 per cent."
Since 2005, $200 million has been invested in pollution control technology, with about $122.5 million of that total coming from a federal government subsidy program for pulp mills. Improved technology at the mills and at the Pacific BioEnergy wood pellet plant, upgrades to the city's asphalt plants and the relocation of one of those plants outside of the bowl area, and more stringent provincial standards for emissions have contributed to reduced PM2.5 levels.
Aside from a weeklong spike in August 2012 due to forest fire smoke and a few other bad air days, there's been a noticeable downward trend in PM2.5 emissions over the past seven years. Total reduced sulphur levels (TRS) have also decreased with better emission controls on industry.
"People complain when they can smell something, unfortunately they can't smell particulate, but particulate is the number one health concern" said Bilawchuk. "We did see a major decrease in complaints in 2011 but we did have some problems in 2012 and we're looking at how to make some more progress towards that end.
"I'd say everyone in Prince George should feel great that we haven't accepted the status quo and there is improvement. The credit goes to the people who made decisions that have affected the changes."
Prince George air quality meteorologist Dennis Fudge offered his own explanation why the "smell of money being made" is not being detected as often by city residents.
"People are saying the odours this year are different from other years and thought about it and those new $20 bills are made of polymer, not paper," quipped Fudge.
The ministry tracked a slight reduction in the rolling annual average of PM10 levels in the city, from 20.6 micrograms per cubic-metre in 2005 to 16.17 micrograms in 2012. PM2.5 levels fell from 7.8 micrograms per cubic-metre in 2005 to 5.97 micrograms in 2012, slightly less than the provincial objective of 6 micrograms per cubic-metre. While the numbers are encouraging, Bilawchuk says the city needs to maintain a vigilant stance to keep reducing air pollution .
The city's continuous monitoring stations are being upgraded with new technology which Fudge predicts will result in more accurate PM2.5 readings, but he's convinced that will also skew the numbers higher over the next few years, especially in cold-weather months.
"Be prepared, the air quality's not getting worse, we're just trying to capture stuff we weren't capturing before," said Fudge. "In the wintertime, the continuous monitors tend to underestimate the values."
Fudge has made changes in how that data is being archived and decimal readings for values less than one on the scale are now being recorded. Until that change, any measured emission less than one was recorded as a zero value.