TORONTO— Vanessa Gray of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, is calling on the Ontario government to investigate a massive flaring event that poured a black, foul-smelling soup of volatile chemicals into the air, produced loud noises, and forced residents indoors to protect their health.
On February 23, 2017, the skies above south Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation were alight with flames that rattled residents’ windows as they spewed from Imperial Oil’s Sarnia facility in Chemical Valley.
“We bear the cost of industrial pollution and spills every day,” said Vanessa Gray. “It can cost us our health, our lives, and the lives of future generations. This is part of Canada’s ongoing Indigenous genocide and the destruction of our traditional territory that has been going on for well over a hundred years,” said Vanessa Gray, a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and Indigenous land defender.
The initial flaring incident was so massive that some residents feared the refinery itself was on fire — the flames were large enough that they could be seen from across the American border in Port Huron, Michigan. Local warning sirens sounded as the flaring began, but suddenly cut out with no explanation.
“These flaring incidents should not be considered normal,” said Dr. Elaine MacDonald, Ecojustice healthy communities program director. “Imperial Oil’s failure to adequately monitor a prolonged incident left residents with unclear information about whether the air contamination levels were a threat to their health.”
“The community monitoring stations were not downwind during the flaring, and the handheld air monitors used by Imperial Oil consultants were not sensitive enough to accurately measure the pollution levels during the height of the flaring event,” said MacDonald.
Concerned citizens were unable to get answers about the incident when they called the Spills Action Centre, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, or Imperial Oil. Many community members took to social media to seek information about what was happening, and whether they were in danger. Some stayed indoors to protect their health, in the absence of any public explanation.
The monitoring equipment is only able to detect hydrogen sulfide levels that are one-hundred and fifteen times higher than the acceptable air quality standard.
Across the river in Port Huron, Michigan, residents posted social media videos of the massive flaring. However, Imperial refused to even confirm that video taken from the American side depicted their facility. Imperial Oil later admitted that despite the cold and wet conditions that night, a grass fire had cropped up to the south of their property.
The fire chief of Sarnia, who was never contacted by Imperial Oil during the incident, called the flaring “excessive.” The company and the Ministry initially characterized the flames as “steam.” A representative of the industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, Dean Edwardson, referred to the event as an “optical illusion.”
“First hand accounts from residents, including our client Vanessa Gray, defy these flawed explanations from industry,” said Ecojustice lawyer, Kaitlyn Mitchell. “This incident was extremely disruptive to life for residents. It was poorly monitored, and the lack of information created fear. Where community health is concerned, people deserve accurate and timely information on what contaminants are in the air they breathe,” Mitchell said.
The heightened flaring started around 6:30 p.m. and continued for another five hours. The flames continued intermittently at lower, but still elevated, levels until it the flaring incident finally stopped ten days later on March 5.
According to Imperial Oil, the flames were a byproduct of “visible flaring” — where a plant relieves gases that need to be burned off before a facility can resolve an internal issue or malfunction. Flaring happens during plant shutdown, restart, or malfunctions.
On behalf of Vanessa Gray, Ecojustice is calling upon the Ontario government to investigate the flaring, and how Imperial Oil handled the incident.
Ecojustice has been involved in Chemical Valley for over a decade. Ecojustice’s work has led to charges laid and fines ordered against Shell Canada, pushed for better regulations and stronger requirements to be included in permits issued to nearby facilities, and urged the MOECC to investigate spills and flaring incidents.
There are 57 industrial polluters registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments within 25 kilometres of Sarnia.
After a recent Global News investigation that spotlighted Chemical Valley, the Ontario government has announced it will fund a study on the health effects of industry on residents.
Ecojustice is in ongoing, separate litigation with our client, Ada Lockridge, over Ontario’s delayed review of how it regulates cumulative emissions.
A number of prominent politicians have since echoed calls for action in Chemical Valley, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, NDP environment critic Linda Duncan, Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown, and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
Following an investigation by the Toronto Star, Global News and National Observer, there are allegations that the MOECC ignored warnings from its own engineers about public safety and possibly irreversible health impacts.