Understanding environmental monitoring: what are limits, triggers, and management frameworks?

If you were reading along with the summaries for our North Saskatchewan regional planning sessions, you probably saw certain terms come up over and over again. One of these was the idea of environmental management frameworks. These came up in almost every discussion – but what are they, and why do we need them?

When we put together a regional plan, one of our goals is to manage the environmental impacts of industry, development, and other activities. Comprehensive monitoring is a key part of this – but until we interpret them, monitoring results are just raw data.

Environmental management frameworks help us set goals, and these give our monitoring results meaning. If levels of a certain pollutant increase, the objectives we have set will help us interpret what that means for our environment and for human health, and what kind of action we need to take.

We use two main types of indicators to help us interpret monitoring data – limits and triggers.

Limits are what they sound like – levels of pollutants and other substances that pose an unacceptable risk and cause us to take immediate action. Setting limits is important, but it’s not sufficient for good management. In order to make sure limits are never exceeded, we need triggers.

Triggers are levels that tell us limits are being approached. They are our early warning devices: they help us take corrective action before limits are crossed.

Environmental management frameworks identify the pollutants and other emissions we need to manage, and allow us to set limits and triggers for them. They also establish how we must respond when a limit or trigger is met, as well as standards for reporting this information to Albertans.

Photo of a wetland in Alberta.

Limits and triggers help us make sense of monitoring data.

Limits and triggers in practice: environmental monitoring in the Lower Athabasca

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at a real example: 2012 monitoring results in the Lower Athabasca Region. The first cycle of reporting after the implementation of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan took place from January 1st to December 31st, 2012.

Our environmental management framework for this region helps us put the results of this monitoring into context. None of the limits we established for key pollutants and other indicators were crossed. This means that we’re meeting the environmental objectives established for the region.

However, a look at our triggers gives us an early warning that in order to keep things that way, we’ll need to take action to address the emissions levels of certain pollutants. We know this because triggers were crossed at several of our monitoring stations. Specifically:

  • Ten air monitoring stations had nitrogen dioxide and/or sulfur dioxide above trigger levels
  • Water monitoring at our Old Fort station measured total nitrogen, dissolved uranium, and dissolved lithium above trigger levels.

You can check out the full report here.

Taking action: what these results mean for the future

Although it’s never ideal when our triggers are crossed, it doesn’t mean that there is or will be a problem. It does show that the system is working as intended by giving us an early warning that certain types of pollutants are at levels that we should take a closer look at.  We can then take appropriate action if it appears the pollutants could pose a risk to the environment or human health.

Photo of a wildfire.

To manage emissions, we need to know where they’re coming from. Some emissions come from natural sources like wildfires.

To know what action to take, we typically need more information. Specifically, we need to know whether pollutant levels are rising as part of a larger trend, and whether they’re being caused by a natural source (like a wildfire) or a man-made source (like industry or development).

In this example, the extra data we’ve gathered has shown us that our air quality monitoring results are likely not due to natural causes – which means the source is likely development or industry. Now, we’re working to pinpoint the precise emissions sources, which will allow us to better plan and execute management actions as necessary.

To determine whether our water monitoring results are part of a larger trend, we’re looking at data from previous years. If our information shows that emissions are consistently increasing because of a man-made emissions source, we can take necessary action to make sure the pollutant levels don’t escalate. Depending on this situation, these might include:

  • Requiring that one emitter – or an entire industry – lower their emissions
  • Using new technology to cut down on pollutants
  • Putting applications for new developments on hold or making approval contingent on meeting new environmental requirements

Monitoring is an on-going process, and we’ll continue to report the results to you at regular intervals. The next report on monitoring results in this region – containing the 2013 results and how we’re addressing them – will be posted within one year. In the meantime, we’re continuing to implement the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan – you can check out this year’s annual progress report here.

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