An Indigenous woman, aided by scathing criticism from within Ontario's environment ministry, is taking the province to court over perceived failures to clean-up air pollution from the area known as Canada's "Chemical Valley."
Ada Lockridge, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation next to Sarnia, Ontario, is "challenging the ongoing failure" of Environment Minister Glen Murray to finish a study on the cumulative effects of emissions from the Valley—home of over 60 petrochemical plants and refineries—promised in 2009, court documents obtained by VICE show.
The Minister is obliged to do the review "within a reasonable time," under Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights, the court papers, filed in Divisional court earlier this month, say.
Stalling over the emissions review and other measures promised to alleviate air pollution at Aamjiwnaang is prompting claims of discrimination within the government by one of the environment ministry's own engineers. In a letter to Chief Joanne Rogers of the First Nation, engineer Scott Grant questions "whether or not discriminatory attitudes by some senior managers of the [environment ministry] may have played a role in the substantive delays in addressing concerns with air quality" at Aamjiwnaang.
Grant said he has written to Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, to "request a comprehensive and transparent investigation of systemic discriminatory practices by the [environment ministry] towards the Aamjiwnaang First Nation." He states his concerns date back to 2008 and he feels "the government does not appear to be working in a timely manner to address these concerns."
A spokesperson at the Commission confirms Grant's communication was received and someone will be following up with him.
Chemical Valley industries released 55,000 tonnes of pollution into the air in 2015, based on industry-reported data, including sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and benzene, a known carcinogen, Ecojustice lawyer Kaitlyn Mitchell told VICE. She said the government's approach of setting limits for each individual chemical compound doesn't deal with the possible cumulative effects from these different pollutants.
Lockridge and her lawyer are still waiting for the frequently-promised study on cumulative effects, and for new limits on emissions of the lung-irritating chemical sulpher dioxide (SO2). New sulphur dioxide regulations were promised in 2014, again the next year, and yet again for the end of 2016, Chief Rogers wrote in a letter to the minister last December. In March, Minister Murray wrote back to say the SO2 limits would be ready in the spring, although they have yet to appear.
Sulphur dioxide is legally toxic, according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Chief Rogers writes in her letter. "Exposure to higher levels of sulphur dioxide poses a significant increase in respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis," she claims. "Many of our community members, as you may recall, suffer from respiratory conditions including asthma and bronchitis. The cumulative impact created by generations of exposure to these and other toxic chemicals is not fully known, however, the negative health effects cannot be ignored."
People with asthma or chronic lung or heart disease are the most sensitive to SO2, and it also damages trees and crops, the site advises. Health effects caused by exposure to high levels of SO2 include breathing problems, respiratory illness, changes in the lung's defences, and worsening respiratory and cardiovascular disease, according to information on the ministry's website.
The environment ministry wasn't forced to review the way industrial polluters are regulated, but made the offer after Lockridge and another community member asked for "a new or amended framework for regulating air pollution," in places like her community, the court filing reads. Lockridge received no formal correspondence from the ministry about the review for nearly four years, the papers claim. Ontario's Environmental Commissioner has also described the delays as unreasonable, according to the document.
Lockridge suspects the delay is partly due, at least, to the fact government scientists just don't understand what the cumulative and combined effects of different chemicals are. "I've sat in on meetings where they say they don't know," she told VICE. She remembers preparing the paperwork in 2008 to ask for the investigation into those effects, and how she's taken "a lot of years to learn what these plants do and what the chemicals they produce are."
"Everybody has a right to a speedy trial," but eight years is far too long to wait for the government review, Lockridge told VICE.
"This is for the whole (Sarnia-area) community, it's not just a First Nations thing. Everybody has the right to breathe clean air and feel safe in their own homes," she said.
Lockridge and the environmental group Ecojustice asked for the emissions review to be completed by May 11, the eight-year anniversary of the promise from an earlier minister to conduct the review, but they received no meaningful response, according to Mitchell. Ministry officials posted on the public environmental registry they "anticipated" completing the review by June 30. But when nothing appeared on the registry by then, Lockridge and the group decided to go to court, Mitchell told a meeting of the Aamjiwnaang environment committee Tuesday. The government's announcement is now expected September 2017, she has been told.
The application asks the Superior Court of Justice to order the Minister to immediately complete the review, and to declare that the Minister "acted unreasonably" by delaying the review.
The review is expected to be complete by next fall, says ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler. He said the ministry won't be commenting on the legal case as it is "a sensitive matter" before the courts. As for Grant's allegations, Wheeler said the ministry takes any allegations of discriminatory behaviour very seriously. While he won't comment on specifics, He said in these situations "investigations are conducted and appropriate actions are taken when necessary." Wheeler said officials consulted with industry and Indigenous communities on the science supporting new sulphur dioxide standards in the spring of 2016.
Lockridge has worked with whistleblower Scott Grant from the ministry before, and remembers him as "a good guy" with "a real heart" who was always helpful to her during meetings with ministry officials, when some tried to cut her off from speaking. "Some of them try and be bullies," she claimed, but Grant always tried to make sure her voice was heard.
Lockridge was part of a previous lawsuit against the province and Suncor in 2011, claiming an order issued by the ministry allowing Suncor Energy Products to increase production violated their rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to equality, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, in 2016, with the advice of Ecojustice lawyers, they dropped the suit. According to the group's website, they were "cautiously optimistic" the Ontario government had "started to fix some of the problems that led" to the lawsuit.
Data collected by the province shows air quality has improved noticeably over the last 10 years, according to Wheeler. Analysis of the data collected at the Aamjiwnaang air monitoring station from September 2008 to December 2015 indicates air contaminants have decreased. The ministry will continue to work collaboratively with First Nations partners to ensure that this trend continues, he said.
A spokesperson for Sarnia industries said the companies are not to blame for the delays in the new SO2 regulations. The oil and gas industry is "working with government" on establishing new air standards the same way government consults other stakeholders, including First Nations, said Dean Edwardson, general manager of the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, a group of 20 industrial manufacturers. The sulphur dioxide problem is improving in the Sarnia area, according to Edwardson's association. Emission levels had been decreasing for over 10 years, and have been below current government—approved levels for years, he say. SLEA conducts air monitoring to make sure if SO2 levels rise for more than a day, industries that emit quantities that can impact the air quality will switch to fuels containing less of the chemical. Both sides in the court case will be filing evidence in the coming months, but no schedule for hearing the case has been set yet, Mitchell told VICE. Follow Colin Graf on Twitter.