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Checking in on the Chemical Valley

Time for Another Depression Session
Patrick  McGuire
Κείμενο Patrick McGuire

The site of the Sun-Canadian pipeline cleanup. Photo by Wilson Plain.

It’s been a few months since I spent time on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve in Sarnia, Ontario. You might remember the documentary we made about Aamjiwnaang and their proximity to 40 percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry—a square 15.5-mile cluster known as the Chemical Valley that’s so toxic it drove the World Health Organization to give Sarnia the title of worst air in all of Canada two years ago. Our documentary focused primarily on a benzene leak from January of this year, which came from the Shell refinery and directly affected the reserve’s daycare. It would be a mistake to think that leak was an isolated incident.


Since the film’s completion, a 50-barrel spill from Imperial Oil in June is still being cleaned up, residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have been on high alert since last Friday after a lightning strike caused increased flaring from the nearby Shell plant in Corunna, and the TransAlta plant was in the news for a leak of carbon dioxide on the same freaking day.

Beyond these troubling incidents, throughout September residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have been upset about a pipeline leak that ended up spilling 200 barrels—or nearly 8,500 gallons—of diesel into the ground, some of which ended up in the St. Clair River. The diesel leaked from a 60-year-old pipeline belonging to Sun-Canadian (55 percent of which is owned by Suncor and 45 percent by Shell), which hadn’t been inspected in two years.

Sarnia’s mayor, Mike Bradley, spoke on the need for more industry regulation:

“It’s somewhat of a new world. There are many pipelines in North America and around the world that are 30, 40, 50, 60 years old… One of the concerns I have expressed to our officials is the regulation of industry. It appears to me as a layperson looking at this that I’m not sure it’s regulated as it should be—that a lot of the onus is left on the companies, on the maintenance and the reporting back. This only occurs, in many cases, when there’s an incident.”

One of the more shocking, recurring issues in Sarnia during emergency incidents like this is how the industry will put out incomplete or false information in the middle of a public furor. Whether this misinformation is spread through deliberate attempts to minimize the PR damage or simply the result of slow communication and shitty analysis is hard to tell, but when the pipeline leak was first announced the Sarnia police declared that “no product entered the Saint Clair River,” a conclusion based on information provided by Sun-Canadian itself. When news broke that diesel had, in fact, reached the river, a company spokesperson was quick to say there was “not a huge amount” of fuel in the water.


That disturbingly non-technical assessment of how much fuel ended up in the river doesn't give us much to work with, but there was enough in the water for a noticeable oil sheen to be visible on the surface. The river provides water for 170,000 people, lending a bit of a "time is of the essence" type vibe to the whole ordeal. That was the point made by Peter Epp for the Sarnia Observer, who insists that the people of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang "deserve better."

While the Sun-Canadian spill has been out in the open for nearly two weeks, the people of Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia have not received any answers on how the pipeline broke in the first place, what’s being done to prevent it from happening again, and if they should be worried about the aging pipeline infrastructure pumping fuel all around them.

When we spoke to Sam Bornstein, spokesperson for Sun-Canadian, he provided some more information on how the leak went down:

“We have a very sophisticated monitoring system on all of our pipelines. An alarm went off at 11:27am … and three minutes later [our technician] shut the flow of oil in the pipeline off and then he dispatched people to go along the line and close valves so that oil that was still in the pipeline wouldn’t have an opportunity to reach the point where the opening in the pipeline was. I don’t have information on how long that all took.”

Despite their defensiveness, Sun-Canadian did offer an apology to the communities their diesel spill affected. So that’s… something?


We called Wilson Plain, one of Aamjiwnaang’s elders and a co-founder of the Aamjiwnaang environmental committee, to get his thoughts on the matter. He told us the people of Aamjiwnaang “would like to see a regularly scheduled program of maintenance or monitoring,” which seems like a reasonable request.

The lack of communication in the area also contributes to the difficulty of controlling and remedying incidents like this one. Wilson attributes these problems to Aamjiwnaang’s own chief and council government, as well as the petrochemical industry: “The lines of communication were open but inordinately delayed by our administration, our administration office, and the office of the chief. My thinking is that our chief and council are still hoping to maintain good relations with the industry around us; hoping to get some advantage from that. That’s my opinion. And it’s not happening. Suncor is still carrying on.”

Beyond being partially responsible for the pipeline leak, Suncor is also dealing with another environmental crisis—a drainage ditch contaminated with benzene that the company was supposed to clean up in 1999. While Suncor is now trying to isolate the contamination, Wilson, along with Ada Lockridge, a strong activist force in Aamjiwnaang, would like the leaky benzene pipeline and the soil it has poisoned removed entirely.

The benzene ditch. Photo by Wilson Plain.

When we talked to Ada about the benzene ditch, she rightfully questioned why this spill has been allowed to fester for the past 14 years: “If these things are decommissioned, get them the hell out of the ground, clean up your mess, and get out. I don’t like it sitting around if it’s going to be leaking.”


Wilson, likewise, pointed out the seriousness of having a benzene poisoned ditch in his community: “It’s a drainage ditch that was there since before Suncor was there in 1952. It was a ditch that’s alongside one of our streets. I must tell you that each day our kids, at about 2:30, are taken by bus down that street—and that’s a concern to a lot of parents. And benzene has long-term health effects. It can cause things with the blood, like leukemia.”

Wilson’s own grandson died of leukemia, in connection to benzene, at the age of 13.

Suncor did have a meeting with the people of Aamjiwnaang to discuss how they could become “better neighbors,” and it sounded quite civil according to Ada:

“A lot of people came out. They were really happy that so many came out… when we had dinner they had somebody from Suncor at each table. Mike Plain [an Aamjiwnaang elder] did the opening prayer and told them a little bit about our culture—gave them a little teaching. And we sat down to eat and they sat and talked to everybody. So you were able to talk and share whatever was bothering you, and they wrote it all down…”

Black smoke spewing from the Nova plant. Photo by Randi Rogers.

While writing stuff down is nice, as Ada and Wilson left the meeting that night a menacing black plume of smoke rose from the Nova plant in Corunna, a clear reminder that the problem was a long way from solved after their chat with Suncor. And while there appears to be more pressure than ever on Stephen Harper's government for the way in which it handles environmental relationship between the Canadian government and the First Nations peoples, more direct attention needs to be placed on the plight of the Aamjiwnaang, as this situation is obviously not improving fast enough.


Additional reporting by Michael Toledano.

More pollution from our neighbors to the north:

The Chemical Valley - Full Length

I Left My Lungs in Aamjiwnaang

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire