Checking in on the Chemical Valley

Since we visited the site of the most polluted air in all of Canada, the people of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have had to deal with two pipeline leaks and a ditch polluted with benzene.

Sep 23 2013, 6:13pm

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

It’s been a few months since I spent time on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve in Sarnia, Ontario. You may remember watching the documentary we made about Aamjiwnaang, and their neighbouring proximity to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry—a squared 25km cluster known as the Chemical Valley that’s so toxic it drove the World Health Organization to give Sarnia the title of the 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, an oil spill of 50 barrels from Imperial Oil in June—where eight litres made their way into “the county ditch”—is still being cleaned up. In addition, residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have been on high alert after a lightning strike caused increased flaring from the nearby Shell plant in Corunna this past Friday. The TransAlta plant was also in the news for a leak of carbon dioxide on the same day.

Beyond these troubling incidents, all throughout September, residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have been upset about a pipeline leak that ended up spilling 200 barrels of diesel into the ground—some of which ended up in the St. Clair River. Imagining a fuel leak in ‘barrels’ may be somewhat hard to fathom, until you calculate the number in litres, and realize that we’re talking about nearly 32,000 litres of spilled fuel partially polluting Sarnia’s water supply.

The diesel leaked from a 60-year old pipeline belonging to Sun-Canadian (55% of which is owned by Suncor and 45% by Shell) and it hadn’t been inspected in two years. Clearly these pipelines need to be watched more closely—and Sarnia’s mayor, Mike Bradley, agrees:

“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 if it’s simply a result of broken telephone, slow communication, and poor 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 that would have been based on information given by Sun-Canadian, the pipeline owner, 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 water makes it even harder to say how much of the 32,000 litres found its way into the St. Clair river, but there was enough fuel in the water for a noticeable oil sheen to be visible on the surface of the St. Clair. The river provides water for 170,000 people, so clearly these spills need to be dealt with in a much more timely fashion. And that was the exact 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 gave Wilson Plain a call, one of Aamjiwnaang’s elders and a co-founder of the Aamjiwnaang environmental committee. Regarding this pipeline leak, Wilson told us the people of Aamjiwnaang “would like to see a regularly scheduled program of maintenance or monitoring,” a seemingly reasonable request.

There is also the habitual issue of poor communication that makes these incidents that much more difficult to control and remedy. Wilson attributes these communication 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 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 Plain 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 neighbours,” and it sounded quite civil according to Ada:

“A lot of people came out. They were really happy that that 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.

As Ada and Wilson left the Suncor meeting that night, a “big black plume” of smoke rose from the Nova plant in Corunna that was “clearly” visible from the community centre. Even recollecting the past few months of history in the Chemical Valley and Aamjiwnaang makes it clear that these issues are incredibly cyclical—a spill or leak goes down, there's a flurry of miscommunication as to how it occurred and when, and then it’s forgotten once another incident happens.

While there appears to be more pressure than ever on the Harper government for the way in which it handles the environmental relationship between the Canadian government and our 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.

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire


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