It was just another evening in Sarnia, February 2017, when the apocalyptic flaring began.
Without warning, enormous flames engulfed Imperial Oil’s petrochemical refinery, spewing plumes of smoke into the air. Nearby houses in Aamjiwnaang First Nation and south Sarnia shook and windows rattled. A foul odour overwhelmed the area.
For the next five hours, the night sky was aglow with vivid oranges and yellows. A grass fire broke out on a nearby lot.
By 11:30 pm, the incident had formally concluded. But flaring continued for the next 10 days.
Since that week and a half of chaos back in 2017, local community members who live near the refinery in Sarnia’s notorious “Chemical Valley” have been pushing for answers from the province and for Imperial Oil to be held accountable for potentially exposing them to toxic chemicals.
Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change recently released a preliminary incident report after being prompted by an application from Aamjiwnaang First Nation member Vanessa Gray and Ecojustice scientist Elaine MacDonald back in October.
The ministry referred the investigation to its enforcement branch to determine if charges are warranted — a process that could take years.
Experts say it’s an important first step for residents who are surrounded by Chemical Valley’s 57 industrial polluters and often feel their serious environmental concerns are ignored.
“What stood out to us this time was the severity of the event and also not seeing much in the way of follow-up by the ministry,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, lawyer at Ecojustice.
“We started talking to people about it, because we thought ‘well, if it looked and sounded that big then maybe it had some impacts on people, but that’s not really coming through in any of the ministry’s or company’s updates.’”
Over 500 incident reports filed in Sarnia region in only two years
Sarnia’s Chemical Valley is one of the most notorious spots in Canada when it comes to local environmental impacts.
Around 40 per cent of the country’s petrochemical industry is located in the 25 square kilometre region, producing everything from gasoline, to fertilizers, to plastics.
Imperial Oil’s facility can refine up to 120,000 barrels of crude oil a day as well as produce products like polyethylene and chemical solvents. It’s only one of the nearly 60 industrial facilities in the area.
In 2012 the World Health Organization awarded Chemical Valley with the top spot for most polluted air in Canada.
Such toxic pollutants can include sulphur dioxide and benzene, which can cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular impacts as well as having links to cancer.
A recent collaborative investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, the National Observer and a number of journalism schools found that over 500 incident reports had been filed in 2014 and 2015 for spills and leaks in the Sarnia area: yet only one public warning had been issued through the municipality’s alert system.
With that said, flaring — used to prevent the dangerous buildup of gas by combusting it as an alternative to releasing it straight into the air as methane — is a routine process in the area and usually doesn’t become an “incident” (although it does result in significant air pollution, including volatile organic compounds, soot and sulphur dioxide).
The uncontrolled flaring that caused the 10-day incident in February 2017 resulted from an equipment malfunction.
But according to the application for investigation filed by Gray and MacDonald, that was the 10th malfunction-related flaring incident at Imperial Oil’s facility since January 2014.
Mitchell said that while the government indicated it was looking into the incident prior to the application for investigation, it became clear that they weren’t aware of many of the impacts on the surrounding community.
“What we would say is that when there’s a massive flaring event, you should not assume unless otherwise told that there were no off-site impacts and community members were not adversely impacted,” she said.
“You should be proactively reaching out. If the flames were big enough to be rattling people’s houses, then I would like to see the ministry knocking on people’s doors and asking them if they did have any sort of impacts or if they’d like to talk to the ministry about the flaring event.”
Warning sirens only went off for a few seconds during flaring
Sarnia has 15 municipal sirens to warn of chemical spills and leaks, as well as a public alert system that uses phone calls, email and text messages.
But when the Imperial Oil flaring incident happened, sirens only sounded for a few seconds.
Many members of the surrounding community, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation, were left without any knowledge of what was happening.
The application for investigation detailed how many attempts were made to contact both the provincial ministry and Imperial Oil to find out details, but to no avail: “The combined effect of these impacts was to cause residents significant fear, as they did not know whether their health and safety was in danger.”
This confusion was aggravated by the province’s failure to conduct any air monitoring during the flaring incident. That left Imperial Oil to conduct monitoring.
“They just went out with these handheld monitors to try to measure levels around the facility,” MacDonald told DeSmog Canada. “The handheld monitors were nowhere near sensitive enough to actually determine whether any air standards were being violated.”
In the following days, Imperial Oil brought in consultants to conduct sampling with more sensitive equipment: but that monitoring didn’t occur downwind or include testing for sulphur dioxide.
While increases in sulphur dioxide levels were noticed on several nearby stations, many of the monitors in the Sarnia region were operated by industry and didn’t provide public information.
“At the time this happened, we had no information on what the monitoring stations were picking up,” MacDonald said. “If it would happen again now, at least we’d be able to look at those air monitoring stations as they’re finally online.”
This means that nobody has firm evidence of the type or quantity of toxic pollution that was emitted during the incident.
In a press release issued on March 1, 2017, Imperial Oil stated: “The disruption Imperial has experienced is not an emergency situation for the community.”
Vanessa Gray, a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and co-applicant in the call for investigation, said in an interview with DeSmog Canada that “even the people who are investigating this incident are very dismissive of the adverse effects of personal experiences in the community.
“I feel like that’s the general feeling when Indigenous community members talk to the ministry: they’re very dismissive to our concerns,” she said. “If they’re not looking out for our best interests, then who is?”
‘This happens as part of daily life’
There have been some instances of progress for Chemical Valley’s current approach to air pollution.
In late March, the province of Ontario adopted a new sulphur dioxide standard which reduces the maximum amount a facility can emit within a single hour by almost seven times. The ministry also recently clarified its rules on the tracking of flaring by industry, which has long been accused of being overly ambiguous.
But there’s still much to be done.
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario identified a series of problem areas in its 2017 report, which devoted an entire section to air pollution in Aamjiwnaang. They include the ministry’s ignoring of cumulative effects of emissions (instead only regulating facilities on an individual basis), an over-reliance on self-reporting by industry, a lack of monitoring equipment and an inadequate approach to warnings and communications.
Onlookers suggest government must also reconfigure its relationship with a community of residents who have been effectively forced to acclimatize to significant air pollution as a way of life.
“The thing that struck me when I was speaking to people was this is not a stand-alone incident,” Mitchell said.
“This happens as part of daily life, in some ways — of course, it doesn’t happen every day but it happens frequently enough that it’s not as alarming or doesn’t seem as surprising to people as it would in other Canadian communities.”
Gray agreed: “It’s not enough that Indigenous activists from Aamjiwnaang have been speaking out against the amount of pollution we’ve been experiencing my whole life. There are reasons that are piling on that there should be more action than there is. But what we’re seeing in Sarnia is they continue to expand. It’s not slowing down. Industry is still proud of what they’re doing.”