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There are growing calls for a community health study in Sarnia, Ont., and Aamjiwnaang First Nation following an investigation that revealed major concerns about government oversight and health risks for residents living near one of Canada’s largest complexes of oil refineries and petrochemical plants.
Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe said it’s “truly shameful” what is happening to residents living near what’s known as Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley.”
“It’s clear to me that this situation is outrageous and it needs immediate attention,” Saxe said. “First Nations communities disproportionately bear the burden of pollution across Ontario and that needs to change.”
A joint investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, National Observer, The Michener Awards Foundation and Concordia and Ryerson Journalism Schools analyzed more than 500 government reports, obtained through Access to Information requests. They document a troubling frequency of industrial spills and leaks in the Sarnia region over a two-year period, which raises serious concerns about government oversight of industry and how the city’s alert system has been used just once to notify residents about spills since 2014.
Watch the full investigation below:
'A real dereliction of duty'
“The number one issue is the large number of industry living in close proximity to homes. That is the result of historic zoning decisions,” Saxe said, adding there needs to better monitoring and reporting of pollution by industry in the province.
Chief Joanne Rogers, of Aamjiwnaang First Nation which is surrounded on three sides by “Chemical Valley,” said it was a “sad” and “emotional” experience watching the Global News documentary.
“What really is concerning to me is the number of our community members who we have lost because of cancer and respiratory illnesses,” Rogers said, adding it was “crucial” the province funds a health study. “That is concerning, and we still have community members that are dealing with cancer every day.”
Chemical Valley is home to a total of 57 polluters registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments within a 25 kilometre area of Sarnia, including major producers like Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Suncor Energy and Plains Midstream Canada.
Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown slammed the Liberal government for failing to fund a health impact study for more than a decade.
“The fact that we’ve had the government dancing from the need to have this study. It’s a real disappointment, a real dereliction of duty,” Brown said. “Looking into it is not going to cut it anymore.”
The investigation also found that a 10-year effort to get a local health study to examine the impacts of the petrochemical industry on Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang was scuttled, despite concerning research and statements from local residents who feared for their health.
“Whenever we lose a member, they have suffered from some form of cancer,” Rogers said. “I really believe it's the area in which we live. This is our home. We have roots here. This has been our home since time immemorial.”
Are the chemicals making people sick?
Residents from Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang who spoke to reporters for this story said they are convinced living near “Chemical Valley” has made them sick.
“There is strong enough evidence that that is plausible,” said Saxe. “There should be health study, it’s long since time.”
Wilson Plain and his wife Dorothy, who live in the south end of Aamjiwnaang, lost their son Jeremy to leukemia when he was 13. They believe living near “Chemical Valley” made him sick.
“You took him to the hospital with a bloody nose and bruising,” he said. “And they came back and said, ‘Your son’s got leukemia.’”
Public data on increased health risks for people living near “Chemical Valley” is inconclusive. While leukemia and blood cancer rates don’t indicate more occurrences in Lambton County than the rest of Ontario, hospitalization rates for respiratory problems are higher in Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang than nearby Windsor and London. There are also more lung cancer cases and mesothelioma than the Ontario average, partly caused by the area’s history with asbestos.
Jim Brophy, former executive director of the Sarnia Occupational Health Clinic from 1993 to 2008, believes the data is not sufficient to draw any conclusions, pointing in particular to the fact that cancer data is only released on a county level.
“Suppose all the leukemia cases are people living on the fence line or working in those plants,” Brophy said.
Conservative MPP for Sarnia-Lambton Bob Bailey called the results of the investigation “shocking” and called on the Ontario government to fund a community healthcare study.
“It points out the failure of this government, the local government, to fail to fund a health study which would’ve put to rest many of these concerns,” Bailey said.
Ontario Minister of the Environment Chris Ballard wouldn’t commit to any changes but said he would be “happy” to look at funding for a health study.
“Well, people are worried about what’s in the air. They’re worried about what they’re breathing, you know what pollutants they may be breathing,” Ballard said. “They’re worried about working better, having better cooperation with the plants around them to better understand what’s being released into the air.”
— With files from Robert Cribb and Sean Craig