Ontario’s draft emissions policy would lead to ‘business as usual’

TORONTO — After an eight and a half year delay in reviewing how it regulates cumulative effects of air pollution, the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) announced today a proposed policy for assessing air pollution approvals in communities with multiple industrial facilities.  In the Sarnia area, the proposal focuses only on benzene, ignoring the cocktail of air contaminants to which residents and workers are exposed on a daily basis.

The extreme pollution in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley was the subject of a recent investigative report by Global News, the Toronto Star, and the National Observer, which highlighted the concerns local residents have about the levels of pollution they are exposed to every day.    

“This proposal is disappointing — it essentially amounts to business as usual.” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, Ecojustice lawyer. “In its current form it will not trigger any further action from industry in Sarnia. Unless it is expanded to include other contaminants, it is unlikely to result in improvement in Sarnia or to protect people’s health.”

In May 2009, in response to a request submitted by Ecojustice on behalf of Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain, the Ontario government promised to review how it regulates industrial emissions in communities like Sarnia that are home to multiple major industrial emitters.  

Ada and Ron are members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation — a small community surrounded by Sarnia’s Chemical Valley. Currently there are 57 polluters within 25 kilometres of the city registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments.

At present, the Ministry issues air pollution approvals by considering the impact on air quality of the emissions from each facility in isolation, ignoring the cumulative air emissions of others nearby. 

Because of the Minister’s extreme delay, Ada launched a legal challenge in July, represented by lawyers from Ecojustice.  That lawsuit claims that the more than eight year delay in completing the review is a violation of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights.

“The proposed policy would be effective if it was expanded to include updated standards for other contaminants of concern, such as sulphur dioxide, which is known to be above levels considered protective of human health due to the cumulative emissions,” said Dr. Elaine MacDonald, Healthy Communities Program Director at Ecojustice.

“We are calling on the Ministry to establish a clear and binding timeline for when it will expand its policy to look at the big picture and protect public health,” said Mitchell.  “The government must act to ensure cumulative effects are considered when issuing air pollution approvals in communities like Sarnia with multiple major industrial emitters in order to  protect resident’s right to breathe clean air. Anything less is harmful and substandard.”

Just a day before the MOECC’s policy announcement, a Sarnia area plant was evacuated after a chemical leak of hydrogen sulfide that began Tuesday evening and was still not contained by Wednesday until 6 p.m. At high concentrations, hydrogen sulfide can dull a person’s sense of smell, induce nausea, headaches, convulsions and even death.

“Solving the numerous environmental challenges residents face in Chemical Valley demands meaningful reforms now. More foot dragging will allow this trend of environmental injustice to continue,” said MacDonald.