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Shell Leak Sheds Light on Life in Canada’s Chemical Valley

On Friday, January 11, while Kim Henry was marching in Ottawa as part of the Idle No More Global Day of Action, the air surrounding her home was turning sour. A leak at the nearby Shell Corunna Refinery filled the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community with the smell of rotten eggs, a typical indicator of the presence of hydrogen sulfide.

Henry is the academic principal of the kindergarten at Aamjiwnaang Binoojiinyag Kino Maagewgamgoons, a daycare that sits in a green crescent not far from the St. Clair River, which separates Canada from Michigan. This area, stretching south from Sarnia toward Lake Eerie has come to be called the Chemical Valley for its 62 nearby large industrial facilities (on both the Canadian and American side of the boarder). Those plants released 131 million kilograms of pollutants in 2005 alone, according to a report from Ontario’s Ecojustice, a charitable organization that advocates for environmental human rights. 

At Henry’s daycare, daily alarm tests from the three nearby petrochemical plants serve as a reminder that life in the Chemical Valley means being aware from a very young age that disaster could strike any moment.

“It can get stressful for the kids sometimes,” she says. “Even though some of them are really little, they know that if they're not eating lunch then that's not a normal alarm.”

On January 11, there was no alarm, although the daycare’s staff and neighbours detected the strange scent around 11:40 am.

Ada Lockridge, a community activist who helped to found the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee, says her neighbour described the smell as a “number 8 or number 9 on the stink scale.” The odour, “hit you in the face, made you fall down. It was a strong odour of gas, like you were working in the gas station.”

Corunna’s plant manager, Michele Harradence, told the Sarnia Observer that the leak was discovered around 1:45 pm. Daycare workers reported the smell to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment before 2 pm but official word that there was a shelter-in-place – an order to go indoors and shut off all air intake – did not reach the daycare until 3:30 pm, after the shelter-in-place had been called off.

Henry says that residents throughout the neighbourhood were already suffering from headaches. “Later on that night some people had taken their children to the emergency because of headaches and a little bit of nauseousness. Some people were saying that their skin was really irritated and they had almost hive-like skin irritation.”

Furnaces in the daycare had to be shut off over the weekend, and when they were turned back on Monday, the air that lingered in the ducts was still pungent with aftereffects of the leak.

At a heated community meeting on Tuesday, January 15, Shell announced that the problem had involved sour water containing mercaptan – a class of organic chemicals used in refining oil – and benzene from their flare system. They said that the leak was contained to the plant. Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesperson Kate Jordan later confirmed the presence of hydrogen sulfide, which would account for the rotten egg smell.

Jordan says that officials performed an air quality check after the incident and found that pollutant levels “didn't show any areas of concern.” They expect a full plain language report from Shell within the next week, which the company has promised to share with the daycare.

To Henry and her colleagues, the delay between the leak and the official announcement put the children of the community at unacceptable risk. “They have a right to justice and protection and we feel like that was violated.”

Inspired by her experience in Ottawa, Henry and daycare supervisor Muriel Joseph-Plain decided they would hold a rally of their own. The teachers in the kindergarten prepared their students with lessons that drew on Doctor Seuss’ the Lorax and traditional First Nations teachings about the sanctity of air, water and land. On Wednesday, January 16, about 100 members of the community marched from the daycare carrying signs that called for greater respect of children’s right to clean air.

This is not the first time the people of Aamjiwnaang have stood up for themselves. In 2008, they formed a bucket brigade to test their own air quality and discovered high levels of chloromethane, benzene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene and isoprene.

In 2010, with the help of Ecojustice, Lockridge and her former neighbour Ron Plain filed a challenge alleging that the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s ongoing approval of pollution in Sarnia violates their basic human rights under sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Even if the community is unable to identify the specific contaminants from the leak, they may still have a case against Shell, according to Dr Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer who works with Ecojustice. Extremely strong odours such as those created by mercaptan and hydrogen sulfide are also considered a contaminant under Ontario law.

“We're hoping that this type of thing won't go unnoticed and that there'll be some enforcement action,” says MacDonald. “Even if this was an accident, it doesn't matter. There needs to be something to make sure that this doesn't happen again.”

MacDonald said that First Nations and poor communities are often treated as sacrifices to the petrochemical industry and this is undoubtedly the case for the Aamjiwnaang community.

“They've been there for hundreds and hundreds of years and these plants all popped up around their reserve,” she says. “The proximity of the plant to the reserve is quite stunning. They share property lines, basically. You'll have a refinery property line that backs on the very property of homes and community facilities like community schools, more so than you'll see in most places.”

Back at Aamjiwnaang Binoojiinyag Kino Maagewgamgoons, Shell has agreed to clean the daycare’s ventilation system and playground in light of the leak. But Henry believes that even this small concession would not have happened if the community hadn’t gathered together to demand a response.

“We need to have a better line of communication,” she says. “They need to contact us right away if there’s a shelter-in-place or any kind of emergency. They need to let us know sooner.”

Image Credit: From Ecojustice's Exposing Canada's Chemical Valley: An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario and Shell Canada.

As a freelance writer, Erika Thorkelson is dedicated to showcasing compelling stories that illuminate our world and how we live.…

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