When Coal Companies Fund Public Health Research: The Case of TransAlta and the University of Alberta

The University of Alberta and TransAlta, a major Alberta utility company and coal producer, struck an agreement for the company to pay the university $54,000 to research the health impacts of coal-fired power plants near Edmonton, according to documents obtained by DeSmog Canada.

When TransAlta published the research — a study entitled Investigation of Fine Particulate Matter Characteristics and Sources in Edmonton, Alberta — on its website last spring the company initially stated it had sponsored the work, co-authored by Warren Kindzierski and fellow University of Alberta professor Aynul Bari.

But that sponsorship disclaimer was abruptly scrubbed from the company’s website.

Documents released to DeSmog Canada through Freedom of Information legislation show TransAlta did indeed enter into a sponsorship agreement with the University of Alberta that provided Kindzierski, as principle investigator, $54,000 to conduct the research.

TransAlta says that although it did provide the funds to the university, the university did not use the funds to support Kindzierski’s research.

They kept our funds but did not use them towards the study, they redirected them elsewhere,” Stacy Hatcher, spokesperson for TransAlta, told DeSmog Canada.

Hatcher said because TransAlta did provide the funds to the university “we erred on the side of being completely transparent and stating up front that we had paid for it as that had been the offer.”

It was a mistake on our part not to circle back and correct the news story once we learned the university did not accept the funding,” she added.

The undocumented movement of industry money on university campuses is nothing new.

Private sponsorship agreements, gifts, grants and donations have all been used as ways to financially support research, resulting in what some critics have identified as a problematic purchase of academic credibility by corporations.

In this instance, the question comes down to Tweet: Are private funds are influencing public conversations about coal-fired power generation in Alberta? http://bit.ly/2fQVhSB #ableg #cdnpoliwhether and how private funds are influencing public conversations about coal-fired power generation in Alberta.

Industry-Friendly Study Used to Fight Coal Phase-Out

The study, made available to the public on TransAlta’s site in late 2015, bears the branding of the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and concludes the high number of coal-fired power plants near the city of Edmonton doesn’t negatively impact the health of local residents.

The research has been used by TransAlta to push for an alternative to the Alberta government’s plan to phase-out coal by 2030 (which is no small feat: Alberta uses more coal for power production than all other Canadian provinces combined).

In its submission to the Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel TransAlta referred to the 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.”

You will see that the research shows minimal airshed impacts from operation of coal-fired generation to the west,” the submission read.

The research has also been used by vocal coal advocates, such as Robin Campbell, president of the Canadian Association of Coal, to argue against a coal phase-out.

TransAlta owns and operates Canada's largest surface strip coal mine, the Highvale Mine. The 12,600 hectare coal mine, managed by TransAlta's wholly-owned subsidiary Sunhills Mining, produces 13 million tonnes of thermal grade coal each year which is used to power three of TransAlta's power stations. Since 2006, TransAlta stopped mining operations at two additional coal mines and as a result now purchases coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.

Corporate Sponsorship Agreements Commonplace

Sponsorship agreements between the University of Alberta and TransAlta are commonplace, Hatcher said: “TransAlta has a relationship with the university, and we have provided non-directed funding in the past for research and academic projects.”

Documents released to DeSmog Canada confirm this, showing TransAlta provided at least another $175,000 to the university between 2013 and 2015 through additional sponsorship arrangements.

However, the retroactive decision to ‘redirect’ the Kindzierski study funds raises questions about transparency and accountability.

The university’s Research Services Office, which appears as a signatory on the TransAlta sponsorship agreement, said it could not provide comment or release information regarding sponsorships.

A woman at the Research Services Office said simply, “We would not release any information to you of any kind” and recommended all inquiries be directed to the principle investigator: Kindzierski.

No funds were expended [on that study],” Kindzierski told DeSmog Canada. “They were used after the study was done to support a post doctorate RA (research assistant) on other research activities.”

Are you familiar with soft dollar funded positions? Why don’t you go ahead and learn about that?” Kindzierski said during a phone interview.

Soft money’ positions at universities are those funded by grants, awards and other forms of sponsorship that are usually impermanent and must be regularly sought after through application processes. Alternately, ‘hard money’ positions usually refer to tenure-track positions that are funded by tuition, endowments, government funding and philanthropy.

All faculties, all programs, all departments at all universities have soft dollar funded positions, totally above board and everything,” he added.

Kindzierski said the research, which was published online without going through a full peer-reviewed process, has since been peer-reviewed, accepted and published at three “high-quality impact journals.”

When asked which journals the research appeared in, he responded, “I can name them but I have no desire to give them to you.”

Go search. That’s good homework for you.”

You’re no different than a reporter that is too lazy to find this stuff themselves,” Kindzierski said during the interview.

A similar paper by Kindzierski recently appeared in the journal Environmental Pollution, a peer-reviewed publication, but DeSmog Canada was unable to find the exact study in question published anywhere other than TransAlta’s website.

Documentation released to DeSmog Canada via Freedom of Information shows Kindzierski sent TransAlta a proposal of the study before research was undertaken. Records show this proposal was sent to Don Wharton, TransAlta's vice president of policy and sustainable development, at TransAlta's request in May 2015. The sponsorship agreement was signed in July 2015. The contents of the study proposal, sent from Kindzierski to Wharton, were redacted in the released documents.

Coal Pollution Still Dangerous to Health, Physician Says

Critics have called the independence of the study into question, saying TransAlta’s planned sponsorship could have introduced bias in the research questions pursued.

I think after they published it they realized [there were going to be] a lot of people making a stink that there was a conflict of interest,” Joe Vipond, physician with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), told DeSmog Canada.

The optics were quite bad as far as bias is concerned in funding the study and that’s why they moved to make the money trail less obvious.”

Vipond is concerned about the way the study has been used to influence public debate about coal-fired power plants.

It really distorts the conversation,” he said.

I work in the medical field… and there is so much evidence of how funding and bias impacts conclusions in the scientific literature in health.”

But, he added, the average person isn’t taught to look as critically at this kind of literature as health professionals are.

I think it’s very hard. People underestimate the power of money.”

He added that working in the medical field also exposes him to evidence that coal pollution affects respiratory health.

The Kindzierski study goes to great lengths to say pollution in the Edmonton airshed isn’t due to coal-fired power plants, Vipond said.

Recently Vipond co-authored a report, Breathing in the Benefits, released by the Pembina Institute, the Asthma Society, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Lung Association, that estimated the phase-out of coal by 2030 in Alberta would avoid approximately 600 premature deaths, 500 emergency room visits, 80,000 asthma episodes, two million days of respiratory difficulty for individuals and nearly $3 billion in health benefits.

A previous report from the same group of organizations, A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing Coal Power with Albertans' Health, found pollution from coal combustion affects respiratory and cardiovascular health as well as the central nervous system. The report says exposure to these pollutants can result in chronic respiratory illness and premature death.

There is such a broad mix of emissions that come from coal: SOx, NOx, particulate matter 2.5 and mercury,” Vipond said.

Then there’s a whole host of others like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzenes. That mix comes out of the stack and there is a lot of evidence for how [those pollutants] pollute lungs and the evidence on the impacts to cardiovascular health is even better.”

Particulate matter 2.5 is so fine, Vipond said, it gets into your lungs and can dissolve immediately into the bloodstream.

Andrew Read, environmental policy analyst with the Pembina Institute and contributor to the Breathing in the Benefits report, told DeSmog Canada there are no safe levels of particulate matter 2.5.

Particulate matter doesn’t have a lower threshold where health impacts aren’t identified,” he said. “There is no argument that burning coal for electricity does not have substantial health impacts.”

Read added that reality should influence how we think about the future of coal-fired power.

Source: Pembina Institute

The fact that there is no safe level of exposure to pollutants that are emitted by coal electricity is really important to consider,” he said. “If we expect to grow the economy and add industry to the province we have to remove some of these sources of emissions.”

The Kindzierski study produced for TransAlta “was really a political piece,” Read said.

That’s the main frustration with the Kindzierski study — he could have added to the conversation or contributed in a way that added to the discussion but didn’t.”

Vipond said a presentation by Kindzierski to the Air and Waste Management Association found the short-term presence of particulate matter in the atmosphere resulted in fewer hospital visits for heart attacks.

The conclusion was breathing coal-fired pollution is good for your health,” Vipond said.

My feeling on the matter is that people who already have an agenda then go to find evidence that goes to back up that agenda. I think that’s true of humanity: it’s what we do.”

Vipond published a rebuttal of the Kindzierski study, saying there were major flaws in the methodology, including using limited air quality inputs and wind pattern information.

I was annoyed [Kindzierski’s study] was out there and annoyed no one was challenging it.”

Research Shows Industry Funding Influences Academic Research

While industry funding doesn’t necessarily influence scientific research, a broad survey of research shows that it often does, according to Garry Gray, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Victoria.

If we just look at the outcomes [of research] — and that’s where we should focus — if we look at meta-analyses of funding, we see this in many areas over and over again, the source of funding does matter,” Gray told DeSmog Canada.

Gray spent three years as a research fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard’s Law School studying unethical behaviour in public interest institutions and conducting interviews with researchers in the field of public health and medicine.

His research (which he presents cogently in this TEDx talk) found that, yes, where research money comes from does indeed influence research outcomes.

There is definitely a funding effect bias that takes place in research, especially when you can show where the funding sources are coming from.”

Gray’s research found that in often minor and subtle ways, researchers found ways to make their findings palatable to their funders.

It doesn’t mean people were doing unethical research,” Gray said, “it means they were maybe framing their questions in certain ways or asking question A and not question B.”

Gray added universities are trying to better manage the problem of conflict of interest funding, but said they stop short of actually eliminating those funding relationships.

I think there are a lot of problems today around research funding relationships,” he said.

Many of those ethical problems are not fully resolved by simply asking researchers to sign conflict of interest disclosure forms, he added.

There is often little transparency in how universities accept funding, Gray said, adding that can complicate the issue of public trust.

Trust is definitely at stake,” he said. “There is this idea that universities are independent and this idea they are, for the most part, serving the public good. So there is this more implicit trust that we have for a project that comes out of the university.”

Yet with increasing amounts of private funds on university campuses, researchers may not be asking “the tougher questions” that are likely to benefit the general public.

The question is, if we continue to shift funding models, who is going to ask those questions that are not going to be of interest to companies and industry and those types of funders?”

Laurie Adkin, associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of political science, told DeSmog Canada there are a lot of concerns about universities’ increasing reliance on corporate funds.

It has been rather difficult to document the amount of corporate funding for individual researchers and their projects,” Adkins, who is a researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project, said.

Partly because that information isn’t published anywhere and partly because it is difficult to record unless there is some sort of public announcement made.”

A request for comment from Samantha Pearson, director of corporate and foundation relations at the University of Alberta, went unanswered.

As a part of her research Adkin maps funding of energy-related research at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary.

There is a significant amount of funding from the fossil fuel industry but also from the federal government at the University of Alberta, Adkin said, adding “a lot of that funding has been going into social licence research or prolonging the life of fossil fuels rather than going into renewable energies.”

Of course in Alberta the University of Alberta has, at least under its previous president, billed itself as a flagship university for fossil fuel research,” she said.

The University of Alberta used to report industry funding but has since merged that category with funding from public institutions in its annual reporting, so there is no easy way to decipher where funding is coming from.

You don’t know what faculty is getting what share or what research is getting funded,” she said.

Adkin said the question of the appropriateness of this practice is never raised.

This is viewed as the model for what everyone should be doing.”

University of Alberta TransAlta Sponsorship Agreement for Kindzierski Coal Study FOI 2016 by DeSmog Canada on Scribd

Update: This piece was updated Thursday, November 10 at 11:46 a.m. to reflect TransAlta's use of Kindzierski's research to push for an alternative to Alberta's Climate Change Plan, not to explicitly argue against the coal phase-out.

With files from Michael Fisher. 

Image: Emissions from a coal-fired power plant chimney in Germany. Photo: Patrick via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)