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Alberta Coal Utility Vetted U of A Research on Coal and Public Health

Hundreds of emails and other documents have revealed a relationship between an academic at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and executives from coal-powered utility TransAlta that has been anything but arms-length, according to an investigation by The Narwhal.

The emails between TransAlta and University of Alberta researcher Warren Kindzierski, released to The Narwhal under freedom of information laws, “show the company was heavily involved in assigning, reviewing, and publicizing research that would promote the coal industry as the government moved forward with a province-wide coal phaseout.”

TransAlta owns and operates Canada’s largest surface strip coal mine, the Highvale Mine, and feeds three of its power stations with 13 million tonnes of thermal-grade coal extracted from Highvale each year. The emails show the utility was unsettled by two 2015 studies reporting dire levels of air pollution in Edmonton, and across a wider swath of Alberta, the emails show.

First came an April report by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) which, using provincial government data, found air pollution levels in Edmonton “exceeded those of Toronto, a major metropolis with five times the population.”

Then in September, “a national air quality study found Alberta had some of the worst air quality levels in Canada due to coal power plants, oil and gas development and vehicle use,” The Narwhal recalls.

Enter Kindzierski, who has used his environmental engineering research “to argue coal is being unfairly targeted, and that harmful impacts associated with burning coal are overblown.”

According to the Narwhal, “the correspondence between Kindzierski and TransAlta show the researcher sought input from company executives on draft versions of his research, asking how the company would like to proceed based on his findings.” The documents “also show Kindzierski offered pointers for TransAlta communications personnel to consider during the development of company messaging,” writes Managing Editor Carol Linnitt.

In one email, Kindzierski assures TransAlta officials “they will ‘not be disappointed’ in his findings.”

“These emails show a pretty close relationship between TransAlta and Dr. Kindzierski, and in some cases show that Dr. Kindzierski was aware of the outcome that TransAlta wanted from his research, which could facilitate bias in his research,” said professional engineer Andrew Read, a former Pembina Institute senior analyst now working with Edmonton’s environmental strategies team.

And yet, “in a submission to the Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel,” writes The Narwhal, “TransAlta referred to Kindzierski’s research as ‘commissioned independent work through the University of Alberta’ that was done ‘in response to continued unsubstantiated claims that coal-fired generation was a major contributor to Edmonton’s air quality events, and a rationale for the need to accelerate the retirement of coal units.’”

Read told The Narwhal it’s “clear TransAlta used Kindzierski’s research to lobby municipalities,” which “wouldn’t be a problem if we knew with certainty the research was unbiased.” The real worry, he said, “is one of disregarding certain perspectives arbitrarily because of whatever interests that individual might have.”

He added that “from a public interest perspective, air quality issues in Alberta are of high concern.”

Physician and CAPE board member Joe Vipond charged that Kindzierski’s research, published on TransAlta’s website in 2016 bearing the University of Alberta School of Public Health logo, was funded explicitly to ensure such findings. “TransAlta, I would surmise, did not fund Kindzierski’s modelling in some altruistic effort to understand the effects of TransAlta’s own coal plants on Edmonton’s airshed,” he said.

On top of the funds paid directly to Kindzierski, “TransAlta provided at least another $175,000 to the University of Alberta between 2013 and 2015 through additional sponsorship arrangements that are not transparent to the public,” reports the Narwhal, raising further concerns “about the movement of industry funds through public institutions.”