How ready is Chemical Valley for a major accident?

Local residents, recalling past incidents, question whether the emergency response structure will alert them in time
By Mary Baxter - Published on January 16, 2018
Sarnia’s INEOS Styrolution plant makes styrene monomer, a component of plastic. It is located in Ontario’s most concentrated centre of petrochemical production. (Mary Baxter)

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This is the second article in a four-part series on life in Chemical Valley that will be featured on tvo.org this week. Tomorrow we will publish an article on activism in Chemical Valley.

SARNIA — On Jan. 11, 2013, staff and children at the daycare and community centre at Aamjiwnaang First Nation, detected a sudden sour smell — like rotten eggs.

Strange odours frequently waft into the 13-square-kilometre reserve that straddles the southern section of Sarnia and the northern limits of St. Clair Township along the St. Clair River. That’s because Aamjiwnaang is smack in the centre of Chemical Valley, Ontario’s most concentrated centre of petrochemical production.

Having received no official warning, daycare staff shut off the building’s heating to avoid drawing in outside air. Somewhere between 30 minutes and two hours later — the timing differs between information offered in court proceedings three years later and early accounts — Shell Canada’s Corunna facility, on the First Nation’s western edge, issued a call to shelter-in-place.

The daycare didn’t receive the notice until after the company had lifted the warning.

The chemical released would turn out to be mercaptan, a harmless gas that’s often combined with more dangerous odourless gases to alert people to leaks. But this is a community that has reason to be watchful.

In 1951, Chemical Valley witnessed a plant explosion so fierce it was heard 100 kilometres away in London and Detroit. Terrified people packed their bags to flee. Others, drawn by curiosity, flocked to the burning mess and encountered choking black smoke. There were so many onlookers that they blocked the path of emergency vehicles trying to respond to the fire.

The incident was talked about as a wakeup call highlighting the need for a co-ordinated community response in event of a crisis. Since then, Chemical Valley has generally recognized the importance of emergency preparedness. Yet as Aamjiwnaang’s experienced with the Shell leak showed, warnings haven’t always reached those who needed to know. Nor have they always been issued in a timely fashion.

The warning system

What does the area’s emergency preparedness and response system look like today? For starters, 15 municipal sirens throughout the area are tested every Monday at 12:30 p.m. They’re meant to warn of an industrial emergency, or a weather-related one, such as a tornado. A special radio frequency that municipal emergency responders share with industry is tested daily. Many — although not all — plants maintain their own sirens or public addressing system as well as their own emergency personnel and equipment. In Sarnia, evacuation trailers make it possible to remove the whole population to safety if needed. St. Clair Township owns two specialized 35-metre aerial trucks that reach six storeys high and can spray foam and water. Every year, industry and municipal emergency response workers participate in an emergency simulation.

Yet the 2013 incident at Aamjiwnaang revealed gaps in Chemical Valley’s emergency response structure, most notably in its ability to alert the community to a danger, and communicate the protective steps the public needs to take.

Wilson Plain Jr., Aamjiwnaang’s emergency response co-ordinator, says the handling of the spill notification in the 2013 Shell incident played a role in the First Nation’s decision to tackle that gap by installing its own emergency alert system. In place since 2014, the First Nation-run system provides automated alerts through different communication channels including phone, text, and email. Alerts are also posted on a dedicated Facebook page, and the First Nation’s website.

“A lot of people didn’t know what to do [in an emergency],” Plain says. “Now it’s providing information to everybody just to make sure everyone is aware of what they’re supposed to do.”

A few months earlier in the same year, Sarnia also introduced a notification system to address the gap. The 24-hour MyCNN public alert notification system is sponsored by industry and housed in Sarnia’s police headquarters. It distributes information through communication channels such as telephone, email, and text, and it serves people throughout Chemical Valley’s different jurisdictions. (MyCNN is also used in several other North American communities; in Boston, it alerted subscribers to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.)

Anyone can sign up for the mandatory alerts. They can also opt to receive other routine notifications, such as road closures. About 70,000 area residents, businesses, and organizations are registered. Cal Gardner, Sarnia community emergency management co-ordinator, says the MyCNN system “really increased our footprint of people we were trying to reach.”

Yet MyCNN has encountered stiff local criticism since its introduction in 2014. After its debut, police ceased alerting media through a pager system about internal incidents at plants and when municipal firefighters were called in to help. But information about these types of incidents wasn’t being distributed through MyCNN either. (Nor does the system deliver any river spill alerts.) Some media protested, arguing that the public had the right to know about these sorts of incidents in case they escalated.

Then last fall, a massive media investigation revealed the network had only once been used to alert the public about a chemical spill. It has, however, been used three other times for other types of wide-scale community alerts, such as notice of a missing child.


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Gardner says winding down the media paging system had to do with provincially dictated changes in protocols for breaking into television and radio broadcasts. The committee that oversees what types of information to distribute to the community at large — a committee that contains municipal and industry members — made the decision about what information to distribute through MyCNN.

GIF of a chemical explosionThe committee determined the network should only be used to mobilize the public to respond to an emergency. Their concern was that too many interruptions about regular plant activities such as flaring — a safety measure used to burn off gases — would discourage people from signing up. Many people don’t want a telephone call or text in the middle of the night about a routine activity, Gardner says, and “if you cry wolf for every flare that goes on, we also believe that people wouldn’t listen to it when we absolutely have to reach them.” 

Nevertheless, others who felt they should be in a need-to-know position were also unhappy about alert protocols. In February 2017, St. Clair County officials in Michigan complained about not receiving timely information about a dramatic February grass fire near the Imperial Oil plant, nor regarding the plant’s flaring that took place at the same time. (The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change is currently investigating the flaring incident.)

Sarnia mayor Mike Bradley says although the February incidents looked terrible from the U.S. side of the St. Clair River, on the Canadian side they didn’t require the public to take action and so didn’t qualify to be issued as an alert on MyCNN.

(Gardner says his counterpart in St. Clair County does have access to the radio frequency that’s used exclusively for industrial-municipal emergency communications, “but usually [the radio is] turned off.”)

Plain thinks the MyCNN mandatory alert protocols are misguided. In his view, people see things happening and want to know more, including whether the incident has the potential to escalate. That’s why he compiles exhaustive notes of plant activities to share with residents on the band’s website and its emergency services Facebook page and adds notifications through its emergency alert system. 

Especially in the age of social media, he says, it’s important to disseminate accurate information to avoid creating unnecessary worry among residents.

Can we trust companies to report themselves?

Plain also questions the rules that govern industry’s communications with authorities about incidents. Provincial spill prevention and contingency plan regulation do require Chemical Valley’s major petroleum and petrochemical facilities to notify people who might be in danger if a spill occurs. Other provincial regulations require industry to notify the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s spills action centre about events that could harm others or the environment. But it doesn’t specify how quickly companies must report to the ministry, beyond saying that they should do so “forthwith.”

Plain is further troubled by an enforcement system that depends on industry to self-report incidents — and to provide the data that accounts for their impact.

He recalls an incident early last December involving a rail car at Imperial Oil. The issue resolved quickly; the company said neither its own air monitoring activities nor monitoring by third parties indicated any off-site impact.

Yet there was a strong wind that day. “Where did it go?” Plain asks. He doesn’t trust companies to monitor these incidents and report on themselves. “A lot of community members think the same thing.”

The reliance on industry to do the right thing worries Dianne Saxe, too. In her 2017 report, the province’s environmental commissioner asserted that limited monitoring by the provincial government and reliance on self-reporting “hinder [the ministry’s] ability to enforce section 14 of the [Environmental Protection Act] by making it more challenging to determine if a violation has occurred.” Moreover, if “a facility declines to identify themselves as the source, there is no way for the ministry or the community to determine the type, extent, and source of an emission.”

Dean Edwardson, general manager of Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization (CVECO) and the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, an 18-member industry group, says: “Our industries do report. It’s part of good management and secondly it’s a legal requirement.”

Plain acknowledges that most plants are forthcoming on their reporting and alert municipalities and the First Nation to any problems within a reasonable time. Still, past incidents such as the 2013 Shell gas leak cast a long shadow over his community and others near the industrial activity of Chemical Valley.

Five years later, the community alerts have improved, but the system still isn’t failsafe, Plain says. What happened in January 2013 “could happen again.”

“Hopefully it never will.”

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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