Sarnia: How an environmental movement spread through Ontario’s petrochemical hub

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on Jun 16, 2016
Sarnia’s Enbridge solar farm. At the time it was built in 2010, it was the largest solar farm in the world.



SARNIA —Shawn McKnight’s statue on the Sarnia waterfront is a tragic memorial to the workers of Chemical Valley. It’s designed to be viewed through the silhouette of a person — a worker who succumbed to mesothelioma or any of the other myriad diseases suffered by those who have worked in the Valley.  The outline of a ghost.

The silhouette frames a family, two children holding the hands of a surviving parent. It is at once a statue that commemorates victims, and acknowledges those who have built their lives on industrial employment in the valley. It was installed in a patch of grass on the waterfront, with a view of Sarnia’s downtown skyline as well as the towers and flare stacks of Chemical Valley.

The thing is, it’s impossible to safely look at McKnight’s statue as intended. Four years ago the city discovered asbestos seeping up into the ground — long-buried contaminants that had worked their way to the surface — and the area has been fenced off ever since. What was once the site of a monument to workers has turned into a quarantine zone saturated with the very substance that claimed many of their lives.

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McKnight is an environmentalist in a town built on chemical industry. Petrolia — a town adjacent to Sarnia — was the site of North America’s first commercial oil well. Pipelines bisect the region, bringing crude to refineries that turn it into products used worldwide, and employ many of the 71,000 people who live in Sarnia-Lambton. The area is home to 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical manufacturing industries.

McKnight is at the heart of a thriving environmental movement in Sarnia. His organization, Return the Landscape, preserves native plants that are often the casualty of industrial development. When industry expands or renovates, McKnight is there to gather the dogwood trees and wild geranium that would otherwise be eradicated and place them in parks throughout the city.

Industry has come to define Sarnia-Lambton in the eyes of those who have never visited. A 2013 VICE documentary highlighted Sarnia as the most polluted place in the world, based on a 2011 WHO report into air quality. Chatelaine ran a feature on the area in 2008 headlined “Canada’s toxic town.” It focused on the workers in Chemical Valley, some of whom suffer greatly from mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos. In 2004, documentary photographer Louie Palu shot a series of heartbreaking photos that captured the final days of Blayne Kinart, a 57-year-old worker in Chemical Valley who died from mesothelioma.

This fight is not a new fight. Yet many in the area owe their livelihoods to the very factories that produce the pollution that has claimed lives, caused illness and ravaged Sarnia’s natural landscape.

Lindsay and Vanessa Gray remember being told as kids not to play in the creek near their house.  For her prom, Lindsay took photos on a patch of grass later condemned for asbestos contamination. The area’s fight for environmental preservation has become a generational one: as activists and members of the Chemical Valley’s neighbouring Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Lindsay and Vanessa work to raise awareness about the effect of industry on the area where the First Nation resides.

Sarnia’s environmental movement is one that exists alongside industry. The city’s inaugural Go Green awards were officially handed out in May. The medium-large business award went to Enbridge Green Power for its work around its solar facility, which was the largest in the world when it was built in 2010. On the other side of town, one of the company’s Line 9 pipeline valves became a flashpoint when 23-year-old Vanessa Gray handcuffed herself to it in December of last year.

Today, the Gray sisters runs the Toxic Tour — a trip around the Aamjiwnaang reserve and nearby industry that shows its proximity to flare stacks and pipelines, and also introduces people to the area’s history of pollution.

Talfourd Creek, a major river that bisects the reserve, has signs bearing the skull and crossbones that warn people it is contaminated. The Ministry of Environment tested the creek in 2014 and reported that it was safe for recreation. The Gray sisters received funding to do their own testing prior to the ministry’s tests, but a mishap at the lab they sent the samples to has delayed the results.

The creek snakes through the reserve and Chemical Valley. It’s difficult to lay blame for the contamination on any one company, since so many operate on its shores. While products manufactured in the Valley range from medical oxygen to chewing gum, the companies that operate there are collectively known as “industry.”

Marina Plain, a member of the Aamjiwnaang environmental committee, says industry has been sending more liaisons to the reserve in recent years to discuss spills and emissions, but the spills still occur and notification is far from perfect.

“The monitoring we rely on are the industry’s fence-line monitors, but what we’ve done is we’ve secured some funds to initiate our own fence-line monitoring, so we don’t have to rely on their information … That’s a good step in the right direction for us because I really don’t feel that we can rely on the industry’s data. I feel like sometimes it’s delayed, sometimes it might be miscommunicated,” Plain said in an interview on the bank of the Talfourd Creek.

The part of the creek that passes by the Aamjiwnaang Community Centre has undergone shoreline softening, its once-straight path turned into a curving bank for geese and other animals to enjoy.

The face of industry in Sarnia has been changing. The once-dominant petrochemical industry faces challenges from legislation and consumer appetites for more sustainable, environmentally-friendly products. Biofuels are the next area that Sarnia is looking to for expansion of its industry.

“Going forward we’re really planting the seeds for the future and trying to build future infrastructure and have a parallel track here,” says George Mallay, general manager of the Sarnia-Lambton Economic  Partnership. “They’re using the infrastructure from the existing petrochemical industry. It’s going to be a parallel path. This notion of you’re going to turn off the tap and stop fossil fuels tomorrow, that doesn’t work in reality.”

The biofuel plants rely largely on the same infrastructure and zoning as chemical plants, so old contaminated sites are being repurposed to produce, say, dextrose sugar syrup from the remnants of corn plants. Comet Biorefining, opening in 2018, will produce 27 million kilograms of dextrose syrup from what’s known as corn stover, the waste left behind after a corn harvest.

“Is Sarnia ever going to completely move away from things like the chemical industry and refining? Probably not, but I think it could have a future in more of these advanced manufacturing tech industry could play well in Sarnia,” economist Mike Moffatt says.

Some things are changing in Aamjiwnaang. The reserve now operates a greenhouse that grows local plants. Supervised by McKnight, the Shell-sponsored greenhouse grows plants for both paying clients and charitable purposes. Two flats are devoted to growing native plants for planting near Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge.

But smoke stacks still spout chemical fumes, and environmental activists like Vanessa Gray are still jousting with industry. In 2012, Enbridge began the process of reversing the pipeline’s flow to carry crude to Montreal and applied to increase its capacity from 240,000 barrels per day to 300,000, which is part of what spurred Gray’s action. Gray will appear in court this year to face criminal charges related to the Line 9 pipeline protest her and three others engaged in last December.

In March, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear a case from the Chippewas of the Thames against the pipeline. The London-area Anishinaabe First Nation argues that they weren’t consulted on the reversal and capacity expansion. Both parties are currently preparing their cases.

“Traditionally speaking, before all the industries, we had agriculture, we had fishing and hunting, and now we have to deal with these corporate giants coming in and spilling all this poison on us and we’re just supposed to accept their reports and not say anything. I feel like they want us to not saying anything and that’s just not going to happen,” Plain says. “As long as we have the young activists in this area, [industry is] always going to have somebody challenging them — always. That’s not going to go away.”

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