Jump to Content
An oil refinery with many smoke stacks is lit up at night.

Photo by Garth Lenz

press release

Imperial Oil must be held accountable for dangerous pollution

June 21, 2021

TORONTO, ONT./TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF THE HURON-WENDAT, THE ANISHNAABEG, HAUDENOSAUNEE, CHIPPEWAS AND THE MISSISSAUGAS OF THE CREDIT FIRST NATION (Boozhoo, Kino Weya, Ya’at’eeh Shi’kis) – Two members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation have been granted party status in an Ontario Land Tribunal hearing about penalties levied against Imperial Oil for its excessive releases of sulphur dioxide.

Arnold Norman Yellowman and Vanessa Gray, represented by Ecojustice, applied for party status to ensure the environmental penalty orders issued against Imperial Oil by Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks are upheld by the tribunal.

On 11 separate occasions between July and October 2019, Imperial Oil’s Sarnia, Ont. refinery released more sulphur dioxide than allowed by regulations under the province’s Environmental Protection Act. The Ministry has levied penalties totaling $801,908.80 against Imperial Oil for these breaches.

Imperial Oil is now appealing these penalties at the Ontario Land Tribunal (formerly the Environmental Review Tribunal), asking for the penalty orders to be reversed in their entirety or, alternatively, for the penalties to be reduced.

Sulphur dioxide is an acute respiratory toxicant and is highly dangerous to people with breathing or heart problems. Exposure to high levels of the gas is known to cause respiratory distress, especially in vulnerable populations such as children, seniors, and people with asthma.

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which will also participate in the appeal, and its community members have long been exposed to a disproportionate level of environmental pollution, due to the large number of petroleum and chemical plants situated near their traditional territories near Sarnia, Ont.

Ian Miron, Ecojustice lawyer, said:

“Petrochemical companies must be deterred from releasing dangerous chemicals, and when they do, they must be held accountable.

“Imperial Oil put public health at risk by releasing excessive amounts of sulphur dioxide from their Sarnia refinery. The Ontario Land Tribunal must uphold the penalties levied against Imperial Oil.”

Arnold Norman Yellowman said:

“Imperial Oil must be held accountable for releasing harmful substances (SO2) into the environment that are known to harm human health and the well-being of the infants, toddlers, children and adolescents. They can’t comprehend how pollution encroaches their longevity or lifespan of a human being.

“As a parent, I must ask the Ontario Land Tribunal, and the Province of Ontario, to uphold the law and to uphold the penalty that has been issued. I agree with this penalty for my children’s livelihoods, my children’s friendships, and my children’s spiritual connections to the environment.

“Our environment is our only safe space, a safe space that has been fragmented into only our home when we don’t know that the outdoors is safe.”

Vanessa Gray said:

“Pollution is cumulative. When Imperial Oil releases toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, it has short-term and long-term effects on all living beings in Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the surrounding area, but also as sulphur dioxide is a colorless gas—it is volatile, far-reaching, and intergenerational. In other words, sulphur dioxide can affect our reproductive health.

“As an Anishinaabe Kwe and community member, my community and family have endured enough uncertainty about the safety of the air we breathe and our surrounding environment: this cycle of violence must come to an end.

“Certainly, a company as established Imperial Oil can afford to put the health of the surrounding community first, invest in their ‘HazOps’, or risk management operations, to ensure that releases like this one do not happen again, and pay when they fail to take chemical exposures seriously.

“Sulphur dioxide is a dangerous chemical that has been linked to rates of asthma in children in my community.”


The Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s reserve near Sarnia, Ont. is surrounded by an industrial complex known as Chemical Valley due to the high concentration of petrochemical facilities. Pollution levels in Chemical Valley are among the highest anywhere in Canada, an injustice that has been recognized by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, World Health Organization, and UN Human Rights Council. Holding companies like Imperial Oil to account when they violate environmental regulations is an important first step towards addressing the systemic environmental injustice experienced by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Arnold Norman Yellowman lives on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve with his partner and three children, about three and a half kilometres from the Imperial refinery.  His children attend school and daycare on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve. Emissions from acid gas combustion at the refinery directly and substantially affect his health and quality of life, and that of his family, and his enjoyment of his property.

Vanessa Gray is an organizer, researcher, and educator who grew up on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve and in Sarnia. While she currently resides in Toronto, she continues to maintain close connections with the Aamjiwnaang community, both through her family and community life and through her work, and regularly visits the area. She is co-lead of the Environmental Data Justice Lab at the University of Toronto’s Technoscience Research Unit. Her research focuses on the Aamjiwnaang community’s understanding and response to the frequent chemical releases they are exposed to.


Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.