A tale of two activists

In Chemical Valley, Kris Lee and Ada Lockridge take different approaches to pressure industry to change its environmental practices
By Mary Baxter - Published on January 17, 2018
Environmental activist Ada Lockridge holds an eagle feather — an Indigenous symbol of bravery and integrity — while standing in front of ARLANXEO chemical plant in Sarnia. (Mary Baxter)

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This is the third article in a four-part series on life in Chemical Valley. Tomorrow we will publish an article on the uncertain environmental future of Chemical Valley.

SARNIA — At Kris Lee’s cottage near Sombra — a 30-minute drive from Sarnia on the St. Clair River — it was her daughter’s sixth birthday, and everyone wanted to go swimming.

Only on this July day in 1985, Lee spied divers and bright orange balloon markers near the dock. Then the radio blared out the news: Eleven thousand litres of perchloroethylene, a cancer-causing chemical used in dry cleaning, had escaped from the Dow Chemical Company plant in Sarnia (the plant has since shut down).

The close encounter with what came to be known as “the Sarnia blob” — which was later reported to be a basketball court-sized cocktail of 18 chemicals — galvanized Lee, then a science teacher at Wallaceburg District Secondary School, into environmental activism.

For Ada Lockridge, the call to action arrived one morning in 2000, when she awoke to gritty metal particles dusting the porch of her home in Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located in the south end of Sarnia. The dusting had come from Imperial Oil. “We started to call around [asking], ‘What the hell happened?’” Lockridge recalls.

The particles turned out to be catalyst, a material used in the refinery process. “[It] blew for hours.” 

As Lockridge recalls, Imperial promptly offered to clean houses and foot the bill for some other damages for those affected in nearby Corunna, but Aamjiwnaang had to ask the refinery for the same assistance. The unequal treatment angered the mother of two. She wanted to help her community fight back.

Over the years, the two women have developed different approaches to activism. Their tactics represent the range of strategies residents have used to deal with their industrial neighbours in Sarnia and St. Clair’s Chemical Valley, home to 40 per cent of Canada’s petroleum refineries and petrochemical industries.

Lee, now 67, patiently builds bridges with industry and government to achieve environmental goals. Lockridge, 55, exposes industry misdeeds to drive government action.

And each of these activists has achieved major results.

Keeping industry on its toes

After Aamjiwnaang’s treatment in the Imperial incident, Lockridge realized her community needed to take a tough stance with potential polluters. The more she found out about the petrochemical industry, the more she worried. “You kind of thought somebody’s watching them and they wouldn’t let them hurt our health. Apparently not. They’re still trying to kill the Indian in us.”

Lockridge has a friendly smile and an earnest gaze. Yet, she says with a laugh and her eyebrows raised, some people have told her that she intimidates them. She realized that if no one else was going to protect her community, then the community had to fight to protect itself. So she helped form her First Nation’s environmental and health committee (which would later evolve into two committees — one for health and one for the environment) to seek ways to limit pollution and mobilize people to find evidence that the plants were affecting their health. The committee used several strategies to prevent the development of a Suncor ethanol plant across from the reserve, including a local protest that closed down an access road to the company’s refinery.

The committee also compiled information about the health and environmental impacts. In the mid-2000s, for instance, Lockridge co-authored a study that brought a troubling discovery of skewed birth rates on the First Nation: One boy was being born for every two girls. She also helped establish the Aamjiwnaang’s “bucket brigade” — a term that refers to the air testing kit (complete with a bucket) that the group used to collect air samples and reveal high levels of harmful chemicals in the air.

Lockridge and the committee enlisted the help of university researchers and national and international environmental organizations such as EcoJustice, a national non-profit organization that specializes in providing legal support for environmental issues. They sought local and national media attention to publicize findings. Every time she smelled something odd or someone in the community told her of a strange aroma, Lockridge was on the phone to report it to the environment ministry.

Through all of this, the goal has been to convince the province to introduce stronger pollution controls. Gains for the First Nations community are gains for the community at large, Lockridge says. Chemicals “don’t care what colour you are, what race or anything … And they don’t just stay in one place.”

The approach began to garner some success. During the early 2000s it used to take three phone calls to the environment ministry to persuade officials to send someone to investigate. Now, it takes just one. The Aamjiwnaang studies helped motivate a local effort, launched in 2008, to study community health in the region. (The effort, however, was abandoned in 2016 because of lack of funding.)

Then, last year after more efforts, came more gains. Earlier in 2017, with EcoJustice’s help, Lockridge had applied for a judicial review to pressure the province into releasing results of an air quality review that looked at the cumulative pollution from plants. The province had pledged to do the review in 2009. In the fall she also became a key source for a joint media investigation that detailed air pollution levels on the reserve.

Within a month of the coverage, the province released its air quality review and announced it would pursue a community health study. (Other pollution control changes the ministry introduced last year, such as new industrial standards for benzene emissions, were in the works long before the media coverage.)

Confronting industry hasn’t always made Lockridge popular. In the communities of Chemical Valley, people feel a deep loyalty to the plants that have been the region’s primary economic driver since the 1950s. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t connected in some way to the industry, and many people there say the benefits far outweigh the risk.

Sombra resident Janis Paulley’s perspective on industry’s impact is representative of local attitudes: “There are concerns but no matter where you live, there’s going to be something.” she says. Paulley wonders if exposure to industrial pollutants caused her husband’s Parkinson’s disease, or the neurological problems her father experienced later in his life. (Dr. Sudit Ranade, Lambton County medical officer of health, notes that so much is not known about diseases such as Parkinson’s that it’s impossible to establish a connection to petrochemical exposure).

Yet today, both of her sons work in the industry. They have good lives, in part because of their jobs, and she believes plants have worked hard to change. Emissions have declined and the waterways cleaned up “because we know more [about the impact of industrial chemicals on the environment], which is a very good thing.”

So when Lockridge speaks up, people ask her: If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she move? “Well why should I?” she retorts. “We were here first. We enjoy the water too. All our ancestors are here.”

Lockridge views herself as someone who works within the system to create change. She points out that she has often met with industry and government and sat on committees such as the board for the first health study. Along with her previous service on Aamjiwnaang’s environmental committee, she has also spent time as a councillor on the band council.

Yet much of her work — both when she was a member of Aamjiwnaang’s environmental committee and now with her own initiatives — has been about challenging information released by industry and revealing gaps in government oversight. Moreover, she describes frequent instances of being treated as an outsider even though she is regularly included in meetings to discuss solutions to the valley’s pollution problems.

For instance, in order to even know what questions to ask, she and other members of the environment committee had to learn about the chemicals being produced and their risks as well as difficult scientific terminology — there was no support offered. Nor were important government measures to protect people such as the environment bill of rights explained to them.

Moreover, sometimes at meetings, she recalls dealing with questions she believes were designed to intimidate her for speaking. “A lot of people [ask], ‘What kind of education do you have?’” she says by way of example.

Cavalier attitudes revealed little understanding within the industrial sector of the profound worries the Aamjiwnaang community harbours over the impacts of pollution. She describes one meeting with government and industry where a presenter “nonchalantly” said, “Everybody knows what happens if you’ve been exposed to benzene. Ten years down the road you’re going to get leukemia.”

“I started crying,” she remembers, as did fellow activist Wilson Plain Sr., whose grandson, Jeremy, died in 2006 of leukemia at the age of 13.

“I don’t like bullies,” she says of several people and attitudes she’s experienced while trying to push for a solution to industry pollution. Standing up is hard – every night she prays to gain the strength needed for her mission. Yet she stands up and makes a point in believing in herself. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m learning, and I just keep talking and something tells me to do ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And I believe in my choices. Whatever those feelings, I take them and run.”

She sees advantages to tackling the problem from the outside too. “When I was on the committee I always had to ask permission to do anything,” she says of her time on Aamjiwnaang’s environmental committee. Now, working on her own, “I don’t have to. Not anymore.”

Lockridge wonders if people worry that industry will simply pack its bags and move elsewhere if local residents voice too many concerns. But in her view, if the companies don’t control their emissions, then they should go.

Others point out that the First Nation actually sold land to plants, implying the community is the author of its own troubles. 

It’s true Aamjiwnaang sold off some of its lands to industry (the federal government originally allocated 10,000 acres to the reserve; today roughly 3,000 acres remain) — the first parcel in the early 1900s; the rest in the mid-20th century as Chemical Valley gained momentum. But what’s less known, she responds, is that band members never had an opportunity to negotiate sale terms. Until the late 1960s, a federally appointed land agent represented Aamjiwnaang in all negotiations with other communities or individuals — and even had the power to veto band council decisions. Moreover, back when the land was sold, few people could have anticipated the impact the plants’ operations might have on the residents surrounding them.


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Working for change from the inside

After Lee learned about the chemical spill in the river, she phoned Dow to give it a piece of her mind. The former high school science teacher, who often taught chemistry and biology, received a welcome from industry that differs substantially from Lockridge’s account. She found herself invited to the plant for a tour. She called other plants too, intent on finding out what was going on. “Surprise, surprise, they didn’t hang up on me.”

Lee remembers how, before the blob, she had felt very safe. “But it wasn’t reality. I prefer to live in reality, and in reality human error happens all the time. Accidents happen all the time. I want to have a face and a name of who I can contact if I have a problem.”

For Lee, more knowledge about how the industry works has created perhaps not a greater sense of safety, but certainly one of empowerment.

Over time she built relationships to persuade plant operators to improve their environmental practices. “We all have to co-exist,” explains the quiet, salty-haired retiree who sits at the dining room table in the great room of the house she and her husband built in 2004 to replace their cottage; it’s now her permanent home. On the walls above picture windows that overlook the river are scenic paintings they have made.

a woman posing for camera outside

By the 1990s, Lee had become involved as a public verifier for the Chemical Industry Association of Canada’s environmental accreditation program, an occupation that she still carries on today. Over the years she has reviewed facilities’ design, construction, and operation procedures, including safety and emergency management programs — all with an eye to ensure these components meet the voluntary program’s goals of reducing environmental impacts and ensuring greater transparency in dealing with the public. She’s paid a fee for doing the reviews — two or three per year — but says that when she was involved in teaching, the association donated her fee to the school board that employed her.

Lee would like to see all of Chemical Valley’s plants involved in the same program, including the refineries, which are not part of the association that offers it.

Meanwhile, her major focus has been the St. Clair River. The 65-kilometre waterway that joins Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair is home to the St. Clair Flats, a group of islands including six that form Walpole Island First Nation, and the largest freshwater delta in North America. It’s also one of 43 areas of environmental concern in the Great Lakes, as identified by the Canadian and U.S. governments.

Since the 1980s, a bi-national committee has led a cleanup of the St. Clair, and for the past 10 years Lee has served as the Canadian chair. Under the committee’s watch, government, community, and industry have worked to address significant environmental problems — what the governments describe as “beneficial use impairments” (problems that affect the river’s ecosystem and our use of it). Problems in and along the river have ranged from fish, bird, and animal deformities, including reproductive issues; pollution levels high enough to close beaches and restrict drinking water consumption; and impacts on tiny aquatic life — photoplankton and zooplankton populations — that constitute the cornerstone of the river’s food chain.

To date, improvements have resulted in the removal of three beneficial use impairments from the Canadian side of the 14-item list. Her committee has approved a further two — involving beach closures and dredging restrictions — that are awaiting formal government approval. “We are whittling it down, one by one,” Lee says.

Lee also belongs to local groups including the Wallaceburg Advisory Team for a Cleaner Habitat which tackles different environmental issues as they arise. Over the past two years, she has sat as the group’s representative on the environment ministry’s working group for establishing industrial emissions standards for benzene (released last year) and sulphur dioxide (in the process of being finalized).

Up and down the river there are visible signs that Lee’s work is paying off. A corrugated steel sea wall along the river has been replaced with a tiered retaining wall, which promotes fish breeding. Many sites of chemical contaminations in the riverbed are now cleared (though three areas remain). Beaches have reopened. The St. Clair River Trail along the shoreline, launched in 2016, stretches from one end of the river to the other.

a lake in southwestern Ontario

Activism: Assessing the impact

Lee and Lockridge often attend the same meetings, but Lockridge provides the impression there is little solidarity. The Aamjiwnaang resident recalls seeing Lee at meetings but had trouble remembering her by name. Yet both speak of their goals in similar terms: Activism is about making change for the better.

“I think of my approach to activism as constructive criticism as opposed to just criticism without commitment to a better system,” says Lee by email. She believes working closely with industry helps to “slowly [shift its] attitudes to accept community outrage as an early warning sign which they need to heed.”

Lockridge agrees that change takes time. “We know it didn’t get here overnight either, so it wouldn’t be fixed overnight.” Having said that, she says it’s tiring and challenging work to keep industry accountable. More than once she has complained that people in the petrochemical sector won’t listen to her concerns until she frames them in technical language. “How come I have to learn all of this,” she wonders, “before [they] fix it?”

A relatively confrontational approach may not be to everyone’s liking, but it has helped to gain important advances, Lockridge says. She lists successes as far-ranging as obtaining an air monitor for the First Nation, the recent announcement of a health study to be undertaken by the province, and international media coverage of pollution concerns in Chemical Valley. With Aamjiwaang’s story having now appeared in several publications and documentaries, it’s reaching different audiences — nearby as well as far away — who may not have been aware of the First Nation’s fight against pollution.

For her part, Lee says demonstrations and outrage are important because they bring attention to a problem. “But demonstration alone do not solve a problem. At the end of the day, someone has to be willing to meet across the table and develop solutions.”

Looking back at her own achievements, Lee believes she has helped to shift attitudes little by little throughout Chemical Valley over the past three decades. Today, it’s no longer considered acceptable to dump chemicals into the river, and industry is expected to be accountable to the community. “We did not have these same discussions 30 years ago.”

Dr. Sudit Ranade, Lambton County medical officer of health, doubts whether community activism has the staying power needed to combat a major issue like pollution. “It seems like people really want to join when there’s some kind of issue or incident or the news coverage goes up. And then after a while people go back to their lives and then they have trouble maintaining their momentum.”

Strong input is needed from the community, he emphasizes, but the push for change needs to come from government. “There’s some greater accountability than if it were a community group saying, ‘We think we should do this.’”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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