The owners of a Sarnia, Ont., plastics plant that has been emitting dangerous levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene for years say they need more time to comply with tougher federal rules.

In mid-May, Environment Canada set out new air quality standards in the Sarnia area in a move targeted at Ineos Styrolution.

The order signed by Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault would affect any plant that had levels of benzene pollution above 29 micrograms per cubic metre of air between March 1, 2023, and Feb. 29, 2024.

The German-owned styrene maker Ineos is the only one in the area to exceed that level.

The Ineos plant was shut down on April 20 after air monitors picked up a massive spike in benzene levels on April 16. Levels measured by the Clean Air Sarnia and Area Monitoring Network near the Aamjiwnaang First Nation band office peaked at 115 micrograms per cubic metre of air.

In a statement sent to media on Saturday, Ineos said the company has made "significant investments to comply with increasingly stringent emissions limits" and said its site will stay closed until it can meet the new targets.

Ineos also said there are potential safety risks with what it called "a rushed program to destock benzene" from the site, and it has asked the federal government for more time.

The company said emptying and cleaning all benzene from its tanks will require meticulous planning and could result in more emissions.

"While we understand (Environment Canada's) urgency, we are clear: safety, not speed, must be the primary consideration," Ineos representative Brian Lucas said in the statement.

Plastics plant owner asks for time to comply with federal orders to end benzene leaks. #CDNPoli #Benzene #Sarnia #IneosStyrolution

Ineos also claims it has always operated within emissions limits.

The statement does not indicate how much more time the company is asking for, but does say it has agreed to delay the start of the work until after a community event at Aamjiwnaang on June 22 and 23.

Benzene is a clear, mostly colourless liquid that is part of the makeup of crude oil. It's used to make styrene, a lightweight plastic used in everything from auto parts and food containers to toys.

The Ontario government launched a project to review benzene levels and other pollutants in Sarnia in 2020. Its findings, published earlier this year, concluded something had to be done to reduce the pollution, particularly around the Aamjiwnaang band office.

The Ontario Environment Ministry has issued four orders to fix Ineos's benzene levels since 2019.

On May 1, the province suspended Ineos's operating permit until it complies with multiple conditions including repairing leaky equipment, installing full vapour control on vessels containing benzene, and implementing a comprehensive benzene monitoring plan and community notification system.

The federal order requires the company to install vapour control systems and fully closed vent systems on benzene storage tanks.

Ottawa is in the midst of implementing similar regulations across the board for chemical pollution, but they are not expected to take effect until at least late next year.

The federal Environment Department did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2024.

With files from Mia Rabson

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