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A coalition of environmental advocacy groups is urging Doug Ford’s government to conduct a full environmental assessment of Toronto's largest gas-fired plant expansion project. The group argues the expansion does not meet environmental standards and fails to adequately address health and climate concerns.

The expansion plans for the Portlands Energy Centre (PEC) by Atura Power, a subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation, aim to increase gas-fired electricity generation by 50 megawatts (MW) from its current output of 550 MW.

“I, like many other Torontonians, have asthma. The Portlands gas plant literally takes my breath away,” said Joyce McLean in a statement sent by the Toronto East Residents for Renewable Energy (TERRE), an environmental advocacy group opposing the expansion.

According to Environmental Defence, the Portlands Energy Centre is now Toronto's top emitter of greenhouse gases, and expanding the plant will make it nearly impossible for Toronto to meet its emissions reduction target of 65 per cent by 2030.

According to federal government data, emissions from the plant surged from 188,000 tonnes in 2017 to 618,000 tonnes in 2021. According to a report by Environmental Defence, the plant currently emits about 439,475 tonnes of CO2 at 24 per cent capacity. If operating at 90 per cent capacity post-expansion, emissions could reach around 1.65 million tonnes of CO2. Increased usage could also lead to pollution surpassing three times the current level, while adding new turbines might escalate it to six times the current output, the report said.

Atura Power states that, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), Ontario is predicted to experience an energy shortage due to increasing demand and nuclear refurbishments. The province will require an additional 4,000 MW by the end of the decade. Atura Power's PEC upgrades aim to address this gap, providing a cost-effective solution for grid reliability, as stated on its website. Upgrading turbines with more efficient parts will boost output capacity 50 MW by using improved cooling materials to generate more electricity with the same natural gas usage, all within the existing facility's footprint, the statement added.

PEC was constructed in 2009, and the upgrades will be completed in the fall.

Darius Sokal, a spokesperson for Atura Power, told Canada's National Observer that the proposed Portlands Energy Centre efficiency upgrades project underwent Ontario’s environmental screening process to gauge potential detrimental effects. “The PEC efficiency upgrades determined that there are no potential negative environmental effects resulting from the project and that, without any mitigation, all regulatory requirements will be met.”

In Ontario, a full environmental assessment for an electricity project is a comprehensive and in-depth evaluation that examines the potential impacts of the project. It involves extensive studies, public consultation and consideration of alternatives. This process is typically required for larger projects with significant environmental implications.

According to Environmental Defence, the Portlands Energy Centre is now Toronto's top emitter of greenhouse gases, and expanding the plant will make it nearly impossible for the city to meet its emissions reduction target of 65 per cent by 2030.

Ontario’s screening process is a less stringent preliminary assessment conducted by the company to determine whether a full environmental assessment is required. It is typically applied to smaller projects or those with fewer potential environmental impacts.

TERRE insists Atura's environmental screening report falls short of provincial requirements and the group wants Ontario's Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin to demand a full environmental assessment review.

“Atura acknowledges receiving almost 500 public comments on their draft report, yet their final screening report does nothing to allay key community concerns about health and climate,” said Ashley McCall, a member of TERRE. “Atura needs to listen to Torontonians.”

Last week, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and the city council also asked Khanjin for a comprehensive environmental assessment of the PEC expansion, saying the final screening report, released last month by Atura Power regarding the expansions, failed to address the city's concerns or questions about future greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions from the facility and their potential impacts on the local community. Similarly, the Portlands Energy Centre upgrade screening report does not identify the levels of air pollutants to which the surrounding community will be exposed.

Canada's National Observer reached out to Ontario’s environment ministry for a response but did not receive comments in time for publication.