Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s emergency interim directive ordering the petrochemical industry in southern Ontario to clean up its act has been extended for two years.

The interim order to mitigate dangerous levels of benzene pollution in Sarnia, Ontario area, including the adjacent Aamjiwnaang First Nation, was announced last week by Guilbeault. The interim order marks an unprecedented move by Environment and Climate Change Canada to mitigate air pollution, according to a spokesperson from Environment Climate Change Canada.

The order requires petrochemical facilities in the Sarnia area, commonly known as Canada’s Chemical Valley, with emissions of dangerous levels of benzene to implement abatement measures, including fully closed vents and vapour control on storage tanks that contain the chemical.

“Clean air is one of the environmental realities that should define living in Canada,” Guilbeault said in a press release on Tuesday.

Benzene is highly toxic and a known carcinogen used in chemical manufacturing to produce certain types of plastics that also causes respiratory illnesses.

Ontario also worked closely with Ottawa to ensure the protection of Aamjiwnaang by suspending production at the Ineos Styrolution facility over its benzene pollution earlier this month. Canada’s National Observer contacted the company, but did not hear back by time of publication.

In late April, benzene levels in Aamjiwnaang First Nation measured 424 times higher than acceptable. More than 60 petrochemical plants operate in the surrounding area.

Representatives for the First Nation said elevated benzene levels in the air from the Ineos Styrolution facility caused several community members to fall ill. The levels of pollution forced the temporary closures of key community buildings within the community, including the band office, daycare and resource centre.

Elaine MacDonald, program director of healthy communities at the environmental watchdog Ecojustice, notes that the major benzene spikes from the Ineos Styrolution facility began in early April. Leaders from Aamjiwnaang publicly blew the whistle at the global plastics treaty meetings in Ottawa later that month.

In April, spikes in benzene levels were detected in Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Those spikes resulted from longstanding pollution in the region, which includes Chemical Valley — and advocates blame poor regulation. #CanPoli #EnvironmentalRacism

Those spikes were an acute instance of longstanding benzene pollution in the region, which MacDonald blames on poor regulations.

Currently, Ineos Styrolution is appealing the province’s suspension while it remains shutdown, MacDonald added.

Ottawa's rapid reaction was initiated by the environment ministry in collaboration with Health Canada, Guilbeault said last week.

The interim order followed meetings between Aamjiwnaang First Nation leadership and Guilbeault three weeks ago in Ottawa. Aamjiwnaang leaders were at the global plastics treaty conference to push for stricter regulations on the petrochemical industry, including caps on production and more environmental protections.

Elements of the interim order are based on Ottawa’s draft of new emissions regulations, which were published in February 2024, Environmental and Climate Change Canada said in a press release. The finalized version of the regulations are set to be released later this year or early next, and will permanently apply across Canada.

“By reducing air pollution, fighting climate change, and ensuring clean air, we are building a better, stronger, and healthier Canada for our children and grandchildren," Guilbeault said in a release.

with files from Natasha Bulowski

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Keep reading

We need more public servants like Guilbeault. He knows the true meaning of speaking truth to industrial power and the importance of performing REAL acts of reconciliation with our indigenous comrades. He ought to view it as a badge of honour that he has drawn the ire of "little people" like Danielle Smith. He towers above them. www.PlanetInPeril.ca