How safe is living in Chemical Valley? No one really knows

The province is slowly agreeing to study the health effects of the petrochemical industry along the St. Clair River
By Mary Baxter - Published on January 15, 2018
A coal-fired power plant looms over cottages on the U.S. bank of the St. Clair River. (Mary Baxter)

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This is the first 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 emergency preparedness in Chemical Valley.

SARNIA — She had already faced one bout of cancer; the last thing she wanted was another. Then, one day in August 2012, Ann Marie Vancoillie learned there had been a spill of ethylbenzene, a known carcinogen, into the river. The Chatham-Kent woman worried the chance of her worst fear coming true had just increased exponentially when she received notice from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change not to drink the water.

But the warning had come too late. Three days had passed since the chemical spill. “We had all been drinking in it, showering in it.”

It brought to mind another incident in 2003 when vinyl chloride — a chemical used to make PVC, a type of plastic, and a carcinogen — had been spilled in the river. That time, the government representative had rapped on the door of Vancoillie’s St. Anne Island home, near Wallaceburg, to deliver the message.

Don’t drink the water, the representative advised. Don’t even go near it. “They even told us to dump our ice cubes, if we had made ice,” Vancoillie recalls.

The warning had come too late then, too.   

Vancoillie lives less than an hour’s drive south of Sarnia and St. Clair Township, home to Chemical Valley, the province’s largest concentration of facilities that refine oil and make products such as synthetic rubber, fertilizer, jet fuel, and ingredients for plastics. At the time of the ethylbenzene spill — from a docked freighter — her family drew drinking water from the Snye River, which feeds off the St. Clair.

Click on the map icons to learn more about the petrochemical plants of Chemical Valley.

Other communities take water from the Snye, including Wallaceburg, a section of Chatham-Kent directly to the south with a population of 10,000. Walpole Island First Nation, where more than 2,000 people live, was also affected by the ethylbenzene spill because it sources drinking water directly from the St. Clair.

In the communities on both sides of the 65-kilometre St. Clair River, which links Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair, spills and emissions cause rampant worries about the quality of the water, soil, and air. The trouble is, no one knows for sure what the impact is on the health of people who live in the vicinity. Last fall, after years of demands from local residents, the province said it will attempt to answer that question.

In October, on the heels of a joint media investigation that revealed several lapses in the local and provincial systems intended to keep area residents safe, Environment Minister Chris Ballard announced plans to study the impact of air pollution on valley residents.

Bob Bailey, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Sarnia-Lambton, responded to the announcement by noting the provincial government had been slow to react to local concerns about the industry’s impact on community health. “For the better part of a decade this Liberal government has ignored us, plain and simple,” he said in a news release. He also challenged the government’s commitment, noting the announcement lacked a timeline for a study.

It is well established globally that occupational exposure to chemicals such as benzene increases a worker’s risk of certain cancers such as leukemia.

However, research that explores the impact of petrochemical emissions on the health of nearby residents — as opposed to people who work in the plants themselves — is harder to find. Existing studies present ambiguous results, but some of them suggest the risks are significant. A 2006 study of people living near a concentration of petrochemical industry in southern Taiwan, for example, showed an elevated risk of leukemia in those aged 20 to 29.

Chemical Valley has seen potential signs of a harmful relationship between emissions and community health. At the Aamjiwnaang First Nation — a 13-square-kilometre bull’s eye surrounded by industry — birth rates are skewed by sex: Since the late 1990s, one boy has been born for every two girls. A 2006 community survey of Aamjiwnaang residents found respiratory problems such as asthma, learning disabilities, and cancer. Harder to quantify is the stress associated with the daily realities of hearing warning sirens from nearby plants, and fear about the possibility of unreported incidents. Another study in the First Nation, this time in 2013, found higher-than-normal levels of known toxins in mothers and their children such as cadmium, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), and mercury.

According to the Ontario Environmental Commissioner’s 2017 report, hospitals in the Sarnia area saw higher-than-average admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses in the early-to-mid 2000s. “There was no government follow-up on these findings, and no updated studies have been completed,” the report says.

a petrochemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario

ARLANXEO is a chemical plant in Sarnia. (Mary Baxter)

In and around Chemical Valley, activists, residents, and community leaders agree that industry spills and emissions are less frequent than they once were. Today, sewage overflows into the river prompt more alerts from the environment ministry than chemical spills, says Vancoillie. Nevertheless, there continues to be basis for concern. Recent figures show an airborne concentration of benzene more than double the provincial government’s “desirable concentration.” In Sarnia, for instance, the annual average cumulative emissions of benzene in 2014 was 2.2 times higher than the provincial ambient air standard, and in Aamjiwnaang in 2015, 2.3 times higher.

Dr. Sudit Ranade, Lambton County medical officer of health, predicts the new health study will be different from a community health study that folded in 2016 after provincial and federal funding failed to materialize (industry had pledged to fund a third of the study’s $5 million budget). The unfulfilled study had cast a wide net by aiming to quantify what contaminants people were being exposed to and determine if there are links between living close to industry and people’s reproductive and respiratory health as well as to incidences of cancer. He suspects the new study will have a far narrower focus, and he says that would be wise from a scientific standpoint.

“When you look at multiple [variables], you’re bound to find something just by statistical chance,” he explains. “They’re probably better off narrowing to [health problems] that we know are caused by certain contaminants. We have ample evidence that different contaminants that are currently regulated are either carcinogenic or cause disease other than cancer.”

Yet it remains unclear — as local MPP Bob Bailey complained last fall — what the environment ministry intends to study, how, or when. The geographic area to be covered also remains an unknown.

Ranade says he and others who were involved with the aborted earlier attempt at a health study joined with representatives from Aamjiwnaang First Nation to meet with ministry officials in early December. Ranade says they gleaned little about timelines or how much the province plans to spend. “It was pretty clear that they’re trying to do scoping right now — to say what’s in scope and what’s out of the study’s scope,” he says.

Chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario

CF Industries, south of Courtright, Ontario, makes nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Ranade says the study is only one part of the answer to achieving a sense of health security in the valley. Also needed are trust and transparency in protective measures, such as air quality monitoring and the methods to alert people to a problem.  “Those kinds of things are not scientific questions, but they’re really, really core in terms of helping people live here understand the situation better.” Otherwise, he says, “It feels like a lot of it is out of your control.”

One move toward transparency will be the launch of a website from Clean Air Sarnia and Area, a community advisory panel established by the ministry in partnership with industry, to provide hourly updates on contaminant levels from seven air monitoring stations in the Sarnia area.

The ministry has also introduced a new provincial emissions standard for benzene and is working on a new emissions standard for sulphur dioxide, which hasn’t been updated since 1974. These standards set the amount of chemicals plants can release legally into the air. Also proposed are controls to limit cumulative emissions (the total amount of a chemical released into air from all sources combined) in industry-heavy areas across the province. The controls will apply to benzene and benzopyrine at first, but it’s anticipated other chemicals will eventually be added to the list.

Dean Edwardson, general manager of the Sarnia Lambton Environmental Association, an 18-member industry group, describes the standards as “some of the strictest in North America — if not the world.”

Activists, however, counter that the measures don’t go far enough. Ada Lockridge, an environmental activist in Aamjiwnaang, notes provisions in the new benzene emissions standard mean that some of the area’s biggest polluters don’t have to comply with them right away — they only need to demonstrate that they are working towards the standards.

In response, Edwardson says: “This is something that’s not done overnight … It takes a period of time as you go through your processes and improve on those.”

Muhannad Malas, Environmental Defence’s toxics program manager, agrees the proposed new standards won’t be tough enough to manage cumulative emissions. For instance, the benzene and the benzopyrine levels found in Sarnia in 2014 (the benzopyrine levels were 4.4 times higher than the provincial standard — and at the same level as can be found in downtown Toronto), weren't high enough to trigger significant action. According to the rules the ministry is proposing, the only response would have been periodic government evaluations, the lowest level of response under the proposed system. But for Sarnia the government is opting to take this response only for benzene. "The ministry determined that industrial emissions of benzo[a]pyrene do not significantly contribute to modelled levels beyond the relevant industries' property lines," the proposal says.

Malas says his organization wants the federal government to move from voluntary air quality standards to mandatory rules. Making them mandatory would establish greater consistency throughout the country in how harmful chemicals in the air are managed. The federal government, he adds, has a responsibility to protect vulnerable populations exposed to toxic chemicals, and it “actually has the legal authority to play a role in making sure communities are safe.”

For Ranade, the province’s new initiatives are “a good start,” but there’s a fundamental disconnect between area residents and the industry. That disconnect has sparked the emergence of activists such as Lockridge in Aamjiwnaang and Kris Lee in St. Clair Township. For years now, each has worked in different ways to obtain from industry what they feel their communities have the right to know.

“Communities need information,” Lee says. “They need to feel they have control over that information, and they need to feel if they are not being listened to, they have another avenue through that company to get answers.”

Noting she has often had to file freedom of information requests in the past to obtain the information she wants, she wonders why she just can’t call a company and say, “I don’t understand this. Can I come over and talk to you about it, and will you explain it to me?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified ARLANXEO as LANXESS. LANXESS merged with Saudi Aramco and changed its name to ARLANXEO on April 1, 2016. We regret the error.

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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