Can Chemical Valley turn green?

To conclude our four-part series on pollution in the Sarnia area, a look ahead at challenges and opportunities for change.
By Mary Baxter - Published on January 18, 2018
Swans dive for food in the St. Clair River. The river has been contaminated many times since the petrochemical became established in the area. (Mary Baxter)

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​SARNIA — In the St. Clair River south of Courtright, swans drift and dive for food. They’re attracted to the warm water outflow of CF Industries, a local plant that makes fertilizer. Upstream, shoreline reconstruction projects create breeding ground for fish. Mink have been spotted here drinking from the river, something they haven’t done for years.

Without a doubt, change is coming to Chemical Valley, an area of Sarnia and St. Clair Township that borders the St. Clair River. Much of that change is propelled by society’s growing awareness of the environmental impact of industrial pollution, and the need to find alternatives to the widespread use of fossil fuels. The measures to date include government regulations, civic improvements, environmental remediation, and industry innovations — but will they be enough to safeguard an area that will remain Ontario’s most concentrated area for pollution-causing industry for years to come? And will they be enough to mitigate the impact of contaminated soil and the threat of pipeline leaks?

Some changes are unmistakably encouraging for residents worried about local industry’s impact on their health and the environment. Take, for example, a water treatment plant built a decade ago to serve Walpole Island First Nation, and, in the 1990s, the introduction of municipal sewers and sewage treatment to serve residents along the river in St. Clair Township.

Another promising development is the disappearance of the Lambton power generating station from the banks of the St. Clair River. The plant had produced coal power until it was shut down in 2013. Ontario Power Generation, which owns the plant, plans to issue a tender for its demolition this year. OPG spokesman Neal Kelly says the company wants to hold on to the property, located 26 kilometres south of Sarnia, in the hope that it will soon support another industrial use, such as green energy generation.

Lambton isn’t the only power station that will disappear from the area. Coal plants on the U.S. side of the river will wind down operations in coming years too.

a building in Sarnia, Ontario

The industrial plants will remain, but in some cases their operations are being adapted to mitigate their impact on the environment. For instance, CF Industries now circulates its waste water and greenhouse gases to EnviroFresh Farms, a greenhouse facility next door that grows peppers and cucumbers. The venture dramatically reduces the plant’s carbon emissions, says Steve Arnold, mayor of the township.

The area’s growing biochemical sector, meanwhile, promises to have less of a negative impact on the environment than the old-line petrochemical plants. For example, a facility that will convert field crop leftovers into dextrose sugar is slated for completion by the end of this year. The BioAmber facility near Aamjiwnaang First Nation is already operating; it makes succinic acid from corn. Both products are used to make industrial products, such as plastic.

Aamjiwnaang resident Wilson Plain Jr., for one, is pleased to see biochemical production gradually take the place of petrochemicals. In the case of BioAmber, he says: “Their facility is pretty much enclosed — and no smell either. That’s a plus.”

Plain acknowledges that a complete break with an oil-based economy, however, is unrealistic for now: “People still need gas. They still need fuel oil.”

At the same time, traditional industrial activity continues, and is still growing in places. In December, Nova Chemicals Corporation announced that it would expand its Corunna facility by half and build a new facility in St. Clair Township to manufacture polyethylene, a common plastic. The $2-billion venture is expected to become operational in 2021.

The province recently took steps to control air quality in the area, but what impact that will have on the new plant’s emissions isn’t clear. Local activists fear loopholes in new and proposed standards may mean they won’t apply to the new facility (or, if they do, not for years down the road).


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The toxic ground

Ambiguity clouds other aspects of the big environmental picture, including the issue of ground contamination — a problem whose true extent is unknown. The province’s environment ministry identifies 12 known sites of toxic contamination in the valley. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, most are located at former plants such as the Lambton OPG facility.

Arnold, the mayor of St. Clair, worries about the environmental legacy of the Lambton generating station where there are three landfills, one of which contains coal ash.

Three more contamination sites are in the river, and two in Sarnia parks.

Where sites are in industrial zones, owners don’t have to remediate them as long as they can contain the contaminants on the property. In response to questions from TVO, ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler writes that officials at the environment ministry keep a close eye through inspections and reviews, and, “when necessary,” perform environmental monitoring.

Meanwhile, St. Clair township is embroiled in a decades-long battle over another area of contamination: An old landfill site that was the precursor to Clean Harbors, an industrial hazardous waste facility that now operates in another location in the township. Five trailers containing PCB — a toxic compound, now banned — remain on the old property. Arnold says the municipality plans to approach the province to help increase pressure on Clean Harbors for cleanup. In principle, environment ministry action related to PCB removal depends on factors such as the risk to the environment and how well the PCBs are contained, writes ministry spokesperson Lindsay Davidson via email. 

Dan Miskokomon, chief of Walpole Island First Nation and a mechanical engineer, identifies ground contamination as one of the most potentially disastrous legacies of heavy industry in Chemical Valley. The nation is currently negotiating a land claim involving a southern portion of St. Clair Township along the river. He says the claim includes riparian rights — ownership of the water, the riverbed, and adjacent property within the river’s watershed. If the claim is successful, the First Nation plans to exercise its newfound authority to address the area’s industrial pollution. “[Industry is] accountable for that,” Miskokomon says. He suggests there could be a good business opportunity for his community in partnering with industry to provide ongoing environmental remediation. (But industry would have to fund “everything.”)

A tangle of pipes

And then there are the pipelines beneath the ground, which, if compromised, can cause injury as well as damaging buildings and the environment. “With pipelines it’s not a question of if it will leak, but … a matter of when,” says Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager for Environmental Defence, a national environmental activist organization.

An unusually high number of pipelines — more than 20 — run beneath the St. Clair River. These carry not only natural gas and petroleum but also other chemicals to supply plants, and some were installed a century ago. Pipelines to supply the facilities also crisscross Sarnia, Aamjiwnaang and St. Clair Township.

Pipelines that fall under federal jurisdiction, such as those that cross international and provincial jurisdictional boundaries, must meet rigorous standards for monitoring. Those under provincial jurisdiction are monitored by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, and are subject to a separate regime of regulations and inspections.

Yet although it licenses all gas lines, the Authority only licenses liquid lines that are more than 20 kilometres long — and it doesn’t know where shorter lines are located in Chemical Valley. “We are working on a way to acquire that information,” writes Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, by email.

Moreover, the regulation exempts some other types of lines from compliance — for instance, pipes located in natural gas liquid extraction plants.

There have been six major incidents involving pipelines under provincial jurisdiction over the past 60 years. One of them took place in Sarnia, according to the Authority. It was a 2013 Sun Canadian pipeline rupture that spilled 34,000 litres of diesel fuel. An unknown quantity of fuel leaked into St. Clair River. Water intakes downstream had to be closed and residents were warned not to swim in the river.   

St. Clair river in Sarnia

Meanwhile, municipalities have even less information on pipelines than their federal and provincial counterparts, despite the fact that local governments are typically the first responders in an emergency.

“We’ve asked [industry] a number of times to have the entire municipality and the county [mapped],” says Arnold, the mayor of St. Clair. “Because if you have an emergency and a line rupture and you don’t have a record of that pipe, how do you know what’s in it?”

The local industry association is working on providing the information, he says.

Life goes on in the Valley

Mention the term “Chemical Valley,” and for many it will call to mind acres upon acres of steam-belching smoke stacks, mazes of pipes, pipelines and storage vessels, and cloying odours that are impossible to escape.

That picture may be especially vivid for those from outside of the area, who are unused to seeing such a concentration of industry. Yet for the people who live in Chemical Valley, the area is far from an industrial wasteland. It’s home.

Many have a stake in the industry, but everyone has a stake in the community. It’s where their children go to school, where they dream, build careers, and retire. It’s where many of their ancestors are buried. It’s where vivid blue waters attract cottagers, campers, swimmers and boaters, and where migrating birds pause on their long journeys.

Ask residents here how safe it is to live in Chemical Valley and you can expect to hear different answers depending on who you’re talking to. The most troubling fact of all: Seventy years after the petrochemical industry took root here, it’s anyone’s guess how dangerous it really is.

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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