The North Star


Emergency state in the Chemical Valley

A company poisoning a First Nations community tries to escape the fallout

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On April 17, several members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nations community were simultaneously rushed to the hospital with symptoms of nausea and headaches. The diagnosis: exposure to benzene from the nearby industrial plastic plant, prompting Chief and Council to declare a state of emergency on April 25. The company is now trying to avoid having to deal with the consequences.

High levels of benzene were detected to be leaking from INEOS Styrolution’s. Vital community services such as the health centre, daycare, and sports fields have all been shut down due to the toxic chemical. Benzene is used by surrounding facilities for making plastics, it is a by product that comes from processing crude oil to gasoline.

"We do understand the seriousness of this incident and recognize the community concerns," Chief Chris Plain said on Facebook. "We knew that an immediate shutdown could result in elevated readings, likely the spikes we are currently experiencing."

Aamjiwnaang First Nation is beside Sarnia, ON at the U.S. border in the south of Lake Huron. Canada’s "Chemical Valley," the 15 mile-wide region, is home to 40% of Canada's chemical industry with some of the world's largest corporations, ExxonMobil, Enbridge, Suncor and more, found along the St. Clair River and Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve.

INEOS initially shut down voluntarily, and the provincial government then temporarily revoked necessary permits for operations until May 15 for the company to make a plan to reduce the benzene emissions.

However, INEOS is looking to appeal the order, and has maintained that their internal monitoring systems have not detected anything out of the ordinary. INEOS is on the government's technical standards registry for air pollution, which exempts the facility with complying to the annual air pollution standard for benzene.

According to monitoring done by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Province of Ontario, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the levels have spiked in recent months.

On May 17, Canada's Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault, called the situation "simply unacceptable" and ordered storage tanks containing benzene to be sealed shut "including fully closed vent systems with vapour control on certain storage tanks" due to the confirmed presence of benzene in the area. The Order will be in effect for only 14 days, pending approval, could be extended for up to two years.

But will anything change in chemical valley? In 2017, a flare up at Imperial Oil Refinery burned for 10 days, engulfing the sky with fumes, and generating fears that the plant would explode. Generations of pollution, from the world's oldest refineries and commercial oil wells, have had serious consequences for the health and births of the First Nations community.

Feb 23, 2017 (Cellphone footage screenshot)

Benzene is a hazardous chemical, linked to cancers and blood issues. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, "Benzene is a known human carcinogen (able to cause cancer). Long-term lifetime exposure to benzene can affect the blood and is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer (for example leukemia) and other adverse health effects, including blood diseases and reduced immune functions."

Long term health effects are linked to the area due to the proximity between residents and the petrochemical facilities. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation in the Sarnia region directly neighbours the 60 oil refineries and petrochemical facilities that make up the "Chemical Valley."

The situation in Ontario reflects similar concerns to those in Quebec, where the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda has for years been emitting arsenic at levels well above provincial standards. Despite the proven health risks, legal negligence and inaction are prolonging the exposure of both First Nations communities and workers to these dangerous pollutants.

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