This Ontario First Nation Is Taking Its Fight for Pollution Data to the People

Aamjiwnaang Water Project is a crowdfunded campaign to pay for independent water and sediment tests.

by Tannara Yelland
Jun 25 2015, 4:37pm

Welcome to friendly Aamjiwnaang. Screenshot via crowdfunding campaign video

The Chemical Valley near Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Ontario is home to some 40 percent of the entire country's chemical industry: around 60 plants and refineries cluster in the area, spewing pollutants into the air at regular intervals. And while industry and government have said the levels of pollution in the area are acceptable for human life, the high rates of miscarriages and skewed birth rates (almost 2:1 female to male, nearly unheard of for humans anywhere else) hint at a different truth.

After years of feeling misdirected, if not kept completely in the dark, residents of Aamjiwnaang are organizing in an effort to pick of the slack from what they feel is an unresponsive government. They've launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund independent water-quality and sediment tests in an effort to conclusively prove what they say they already know, and what seems self-evident to anyone who's been in the area: they live surrounded by unsafe levels of pollution. With 11 days left in the campaign, they've raised more than 85 percent of their $10,000 goal.

Vanessa Gray is a self-described land defender from Aamjiwnaang, and is one of the people behind the crowdfunding campaign. She says the goal of testing the water and sediment is to determine the cumulative effects of pollution in the area, something the provincial government has failed, in her eyes, to adequately address.

The provincial government, for its part, seems to feel its testing and standards are up to snuff. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change spokesperson Lindsay Davidson wrote by email that "no health effects are expected from exposure to sediment and water during recreational use of Talfourd creek," and that "given that the protective levels established for single contaminants are well below where effects are expected, exposure to multiple contaminants at these levels is generally not of concern."

2013 documentary "The Chemical Valley"

Gray and many other residents of the area are not convinced, and want their own tests, both to understand the toll taken on their environment by constant pollution, and as a first step toward an eventual restoration project for the Aamjiwnaang waterways. While much of the pollution that has immediate impacts on people's health in the area is from the air, water holds cultural value as well as a potential key to understanding how the pollution accumulates over time. That last part is why the group wants to test both water and sediment.

"It's not as easy to take air samples as it is water samples and sediment samples," Gray said, "and we can see how it bio-accumulates.

"It's a way for us to understand the real truth of the damage that's being done to the land," said Gray. "Looking at the facts themselves, to have that understanding of how neglected the water is. I specifically would like to look at the water because traditionally, women are caretakers of the water, and men are caretakers of the fire. So we know our water is toxic—there are signs up, our community is well aware of this problem. But there's been no concrete steps forward to fix the problem, it's only been mitigated by the ministry of the environment saying it meets their standards. But it doesn't meet our standards: the chemicals shouldn't be there to begin with, because we didn't put those there. Those were the companies, [like] Shell and Suncor, responsible for that."

As VICE reported back in 2013, pollution has plagued the area around Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia for the better part of a century. That pollution has almost certainly contributed to the astoundingly high rates of miscarriages in the area—39 percent of women in Aamjiwnaang have reported having either a miscarriage or stillbirth—and to the nearly unheard-of asymmetry in birth rates.

The crowdfunding campaign is just the first step in a long process that will involve commissioning the tests and analyzing the results before even starting to decide on a course of action for cleaning up the water supplies, but Gray said she's overjoyed with the support they've received.

"We're just really excited, and we are looking forward to putting this into action and figuring out our next steps toward our restoration dream."

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