Ontario’s new benzene regulations — created for a specific Sarnia, Ont., plastics plant currently under suspension for emitting high levels of the toxin – are 10 times higher than the provincial standard.

The plastics plant, Ineos Styrolution, was the cause of a new federal interim order on benzene pollution located in Sarnia that will last for two years. Last Friday, Ontario released new regulations specifically for Ineos.

Ontario’s air pollution regulations under Reg. 419/05 cap benzene emissions in most plants in the province, including Sarnia, at 0.45 micrograms per cubic metre annually. Meanwhile, Ontario’s newest regulations crafted for Ineos Styrolution, a plant that sits across the street from Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s education centre, cap the plant at 4.5 micrograms per cubic metre of benzene over a 365 day period.

Those numbers allow the plant to pollute benzene at about ten times the provincial average throughout the year. The new rules also state the one-hour average concentrations of benzene at Ineos must not exceed 90 micrograms per cubic metre. Benzene levels from the plant topped out at more than double those amounts in the spring, sending Aamjiwnaang citizens to hospital. The First Nation was forced to declare a state of emergency and periodically shutter buildings, such as the education centre and band office. Last week, buildings were again closed for two days due to high levels of benzene.

Ontario currently has no one-hour benzene standards in the provincial air pollution regulations governing all other companies. Canada’s National Observer asked the provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks what criteria were used to set the new benzene levels for Ineos but did not hear back by time of publication.

Ineos Styrolution has been pushing back against provincial orders, launching an appeal of its temporary suspension. Last weekend, the company asked the federal government for more time to comply with the federal interim order around benzene, which applies to all Sarnia plants but is ostensibly aimed at the company. Ineos Styrolution has approximately 90 employees, according to Sarnia-Lambaton’s Chamber of Commerce.

The new provincial regulations governing Ineos require the company to meet limits on benzene concentrations, notify the ministry and Aamjiwnaang if the facility exceeds those limits, identify and report on the causes of infractions, install enhanced monitoring systems and share real-time monitoring data on a publicly accessible website.

"These sudden regulatory changes are concerning and without due process," said Ineos Styrolution in a statement. "Further, these latest orders require our site to conduct non-routine transfers and cleanings that will force us to exceed these newly established limits."

Mike Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, was critical of Ineos Styrolution, saying the company has not handled its excessive benzene emissions well from day one. The company “stood back and acted like it wasn’t a large incident, it obviously was,” he told Canada’s National Observer.

Existing air pollution regulations cap benzene emissions at 0.45 micrograms per cubic metre annually. However, the new regulations will allow Ineos to emit 10 times that amount.

“So many companies here were not pleased with their response,” Bradley explained. “Instead of acknowledging the health issues, and impact issues, they did the denial routine… it was not the right way to approach it.”

The company also failed to report its excessive benzene leaks to the Bluewater Association for Safety, Environment, and Sustainability, Sarnia-Lambton’s industry partner for safety, emergency preparedness and environmental monitoring, Bradley added.

“We didn’t even know about it until Aamjiwnaang told us.”

On Monday, Sarnia’s city council voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) working group letter to support Aamjiwnaang in their effort to lobby provincial and federal officials regarding Ineos Styrolution.

Bradley said he was surprised that the ministry stepped up to temporarily suspend the plant. It was the first time that Bradley has seen the province take such a punitive step.

“There's been instances in the past that were serious, but they regarded it as an accident, they were there, but they could cope with it,” Bradley said. “But for this one [the province] took a whole different iron-fist approach.”

The federal government’s air pollution for benzene fast tracks portions of Ottawa’s new volatile organic compound (VOC) regulations, which includes benzene. A draft of those regulations was published in February and a final version should be released by early next year and will permanently apply across Canada.

Those new regulations will include benzene, a carcinogenic VOC. However, they will not include sulphur dioxide, another chemical pollutant that remains exceedingly high in Ontario’s Chemical Valley.

Sulphur dioxide levels regularly exceed federal air quality standards despite new regulations passed by Ontario in 2022 aimed at reducing emissions by 90 per cent in the Sarnia area.

Sulphur dioxide can cause breathing difficulties for those suffering respiratory illnesses such as asthma and other diseases. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide can harm the respiratory system of humans and animals, with even greater risks for those with existing respiratory issues, according to the federal government.

— with files from Allison Jones, the Canadian Press and John Woodside

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

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
June 6, 2024, 06:42 pm

This article was updated to reflect comment from Ineos Styrolution.

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Doug Ford continues to cater to his buddies with zero regard for the health and safety of Ontarians living in and around Sarnia. Why anyone continues to live in that area is a mystery to me, unless you are fine with long term health risks from being exposed to all sorts of chemicals from the companies and refineries.

But this goes hand and hand with Doug Ford's failure to protect Ontarians during COVID-19, failed to protect residents of LTC and retirement homes. Instead gave his buddies get out of jail free cards for their neglect.

There is a long list of things Ford has done like cuts to healthcare, education, while filling the pork barrels of his corrupt donors. I get a laugh at Ford building new hospitals that only benefit his corrupt donor buddies and stops short of funding to staff these facilities. What's the point of building these facilities unless you are also going ensure they are properly funded. We have gotten to a stage with Ford that our health system is underfunded, covers less and less every day by OHIP.

Add the nonstop secrecy and backroom deals going on with the greenbelt, Ontario Place to name a couple. It is time for Ontario to kick his party to the curb next election.

I could not agree with you more. It scares me to think what DoFo and his ilk could do before being hopefully kicked to the proverbial curb in the next election.