I've known Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge, the two Aamjiwnaang First Nation members Ecojustice is representing in our Chemical Valley Charter challenge, for nearly a decade.
I've sat with them in their homes -- located just outside Sarnia, Ont. -- and seen firsthand how pollution emitted from nearby petroleum refineries undermines the quality of their lives. Air sirens blaring at all hours of the day. Noxious smells lingering in the air. Ever-present threats to their health and the health of their families. None of it is fair, and none of it is right.
Earlier this week, I learned that the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) has decided to drop its investigation into an April 2013 chemical leak at a Shell refinery in Sarnia. Why? According to an MOE spokesperson, there wasn't enough evidence to proceed further.
That statement comes as a bit of shock to me because I personally helped file 70-80 pages of evidence with respect to the April spill, as well as other incidents from January 2013. Among the evidence submitted were the results of an air sample found to contain hydrogen sulphide collected by Ada in front of her home. Despite putting days of effort into gathering this data and being subject to yet another chemical leak, Ada won't see any remedy for this injustice. Sadly, it's par for the course in Sarnia and another disappointing development that perfectly illustrates the MOE's continuing failure to address Chemical Valley's notorious pollution problem.
On Tuesday, Ontario's Environment Commissioner Gord Miller released his annual report, which didn't mince words when it came to the MOE's poor efforts to protect people affected by Chemical Valley's air pollution -- people like Ron and Ada.
Given their proximity to industrial facilities, the residents of Aamjiwnaang are heavily affected by Sarnia's air pollution. In addition to the permitted air emissions that occur on a daily basis, the community has experienced "shelter-in-place" advisories requiring residents to stay inside, seal air exchanges and await further instructions. These advisories are issued when air quality is particularly bad, often due to a sudden release of chemicals to the outside environment (i.e., a spill). Residents report that this situation significantly affects their cultural life, including their ability to participate in hunting, fishing, medicine gathering and ceremonial activities. This exposure may also have significant repercussions for the health of the community.
Despite decades of work fighting for government accountability and for an end to new air emission approvals, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation still faces a number of unknowns about their past and present exposure to toxic airborne chemicals. They cannot even be sure that the community warning sirens are reliable or that the government will communicate openly and promptly about its environmental findings. Such a situation would be intolerable for any community, but in light of the particular historical context of this case, it is truly shameful.
Miller's report echoes much of what my colleagues and I have been saying for years: The MOE needs to do better.
A study I authored in 2007 showed that industry in Sarnia releases more toxic air pollutants -- substances associated with environmental contamination, cancer, and reproductive and development health effects -- than industry in any other Ontario community. Another study, released by World Health Organization, gave Sarnia the dubious distinction of being Canada's number one hotspot for air pollution.
The good news is that the MOE still has the chance to do the right thing and take action to protect people like Ron and Ada. The evidence I helped file with respect to the January 2013 leaks includes accounts of sickened children and elevated levels of the carcinogen benzene in the air of Aamjiwnaang during those leaks. That investigation remains open and we'll keep you posted on the results.
After working with Ron and Ada for so many years, one thing has become clear to me: The chronic injustices they face each day are a powerful reminder of why it's time for Canada to add the right to a healthy environment to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No Canadian should have to live under the environmental conditions they've been forced to endure.
This piece was written by Elaine MacDonald, Ecojustice senior staff scientist. Ecojustice is one of Canada's leading charities using the law to protect and restore Canada's environment. Learn more at ecojustice.ca.
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