Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on January 10, 2018 (updated: March 12, 2019)

UPDATE: Ontario agrees to investigate major flaring incident at Imperial Oil’s Sarnia refinery

Dr. Elaine MacDonaldScientist
Ecojustice lawyer Kaitlyn MitchellKaitlyn MitchellEcojustice Alumni
Ian MironLawyer
Photo: Avery Zingel

UPDATE – March 12, 2019: A few days before the limitation period to lay charges related to this flaring incident expired, the Ministry informed Vanessa Gray and Ecojustice that it has decided not to lay charges in this serious incident. This is very disappointing because when we spoke with community members and helped Vanessa Gray ask for the investigation, we believed the evidence showed that the community was severely affected by this massive flaring incident.

In refusing to prosecute Imperial Oil for this incident, the Ministry is signalling that it will not – or cannot – hold polluters accountable for massive, uncontrolled flaring – even where such flaring leads to an international uproar. That’s a big concern in communities like Sarnia, where significant flaring occurs all too often.

In justifying their decision, a Ministry spokesperson referred to new flaring regulations introduced in January 2019. While these regulations may allow the Ministry to impose monetary penalties for flaring, they otherwise largely duplicate requirements that already existed under Ontario law. Most concerning, however, these regulations give refineries a get-out-of-jail-free card, because refineries no longer have to predict the air quality impact of their flaring emissions before they get approval to flare. What’s more, pollutant emissions from flaring will not be required to meet Ontario air quality standards. Under the new regulation, the Ministry will at best only be able to assess the harmful impacts of flaring after the flaring has occurred – with potentially serious, or even fatal, consequences for local communities.

 – Dr. Elaine MacDonald and Ian Miron

Our formal request under the Ontario Environment Bill of Rights with evidence provided by Ecojustice and our client Vanessa Gray has led to an investigation into the February 2017 incident that filled the skies of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and south Sarnia with flames, black smoke and noxious fumes. The investigation and its results are expected to wrap up this March.

Almost a year after the incident, residents including Vanessa Gray are waiting for the Ontario government to address harm caused to the community by the massive flaring incident. They are also still waiting for answers about what exactly happened that evening.

Vanessa Gray and Ecojustice are hopeful that the investigation into the causes of the February 2017 incident will result in the Ministry taking appropriate enforcement actions to deter future incidents, and to acknowledge the serious impacts that it had on nearby residents.

Everyone should have the peace of mind that government will enforce the law when industry emissions impact the health and well-being of neighbouring communities. When the investigation is finished, we hope that the Ministry and all industry throughout Chemical Valley will take actions to prevent similar incidents in the future.

For more than a decade, we have been working with Aamjiwnaang community members who are concerned about the serious health risks posed by the millions of kilograms of air pollution emitted by Chemical Valley facilities each year.

We’ve gone to court, urged the Ministry to investigate spills and flaring incidents, and pushed for better regulations and stronger permit requirements for nearby facilities. It’s also why we’ve pushed so hard for Ontario to find out exactly what Imperial emitted, and to investigate the company’s handling of the incident and its impacts on community members.

We all have a basic human right to a healthy environment, including air that is safe to breathe.  No one should be expected to tolerate industrial flaring in their community that rattles the windows of homes, causes a foul odour, or lights up the sky causing them and their friends and family to fear for their safety. Stay tuned for updates on our push for justice and answers in Chemical Valley.

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