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New Report Details Pollution Levels In Sarnia

Sarnia, the southwestern Ontario city that became infamous as the subject of a 1970s CBC-TV documentary called "Air of Death," has apparently not mended its ways, with a new study saying the city has a "grave air pollution problem."

The report, released last Thursday by the non-profit environmental law group Ecojustice Canada (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), concludes that the 62 large industrial facilities located within a radius of 25 kilometres of the city, which has a population of about 130,000, emitted more than 131,000 tonnes of air pollution, 107,000 of that considered toxic, representing a toxic load larger than any other city in Ontario and greater than that produced by the provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.

The study, which relied on 2005 data collected under Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory, looked at emissions from 46 plants on the Canadian side of the border city and 16 in Michigan.

"What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the immense quantity of toxic chemicals emitted," said Elaine MacDonald, an environmental scientist who was one of the report's authors. "In 2005 these facilities released more dangerous chemical substances associated with cancer and respiratory and reproductive disorders than the industrial releases from the entire provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and greater than any other community in Ontario."

The study, entitled "Exposing Canada's Chemical Valley," concludes that releases of toxic pollutants, as reported in the NPRI, are almost double what they are in the Toronto area, which has a population of three million.

Sarnia's level of toxic pollutants, reported in tonnes, were at 5,669, followed by the northern Ontario nickel mining centre of Sudbury at 4,574, and the steel producing city of Hamilton, which reported 3,334 tonnes.

Toronto reported 2,829 tonnes and other large industrial centres, such as the auto manufacturing centres of Oshawa and Windsor, recorded far fewer toxic pollutant levels, at 1,939 tonnes and 1,308 tonnes, respectively.

The report marks the first time the extent of air pollution in the Sarnia area has been collected, using both U.S. and Canadian data.

It concludes that Sarnia, a centre of petrochemical and refining activity, is responsible for one-fifth of Ontario's total emissions from industrial sources. (Sarnia-area plants also emit more than one-fifth of Ontario's total greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities.)

MacDonald told Energy Evolution those emissions pose a serious threat to human health.

Among the worrisome health factors she cites is a much higher percentage of asbestos-related diseases among Sarnia workers, considered among the highest in the world, an incidence of leukemia among women aged 25 to 44 that is double the provincial rate, and a rate of girls' birth double that of boys at the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, surrounded by the plants. Such a high rate is an indication of the presence of excessive toxic emissions in the atmosphere.

MacDonald says the 850 people living in the native community -- there are another 1,000 aboriginals living in communities nearby -- also suffer other health problems associated with air pollution.

"Forty per cent of the children on the reserve have asthma," she says.

She says one of the reasons the Sarnia area's plants emit so many pollutants is many were built 50 years ago.

"Unlike Alberta, the refineries have been around since the 1950s," she says. "There wasn't the planning and technology then to make sure the impacts were lessened."

By contrast, the petrochemical plants and refineries in the region around Edmonton, Alberta, where development only began in the 1970s, release far fewer toxic emissions than in the Sarnia area.

MacDonald says most modern industrial facilities are built far away from residential areas, with a considerable buffer in between.

"In the Sarnia area, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation is the buffer," she says.

Aamjiwnaang Chief Chris Plain, speaking at a press conference in Sarnia last Thursday, called the city "one of Canada's worst pollution hot spots."

He said the report highlights the need for greater action by governments to protect public health.

MacDonald says it is "a possibility" that Aamjiwnaang will consider legal action to force the area's industry to install newer pollution control equipment and even to force some plants to shut down.

She says one company, Royal Polymers Limited, a division of building products giant Royal Group Inc., which produces polyvinyl chloride in Sarnia and was fined $255,000 by the provincial government in 2005 for discharging 293 kilograms of cancer-causing vinyl chloride monomer into the St. Clair River, has said it wants to expand its plant significantly.

Her group is assisting the aboriginals in fighting that expansion.

The study showed about 1,900 of the 5,669 tonnes of toxic emissions come from the U.S., meaning only appeals to international bodies could force companies in Michigan to improve their environmental performance.

While Ontario's Liberal government, facing an election in the next week, has pledged to close down the Lambton Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant responsible for a significant percentage of emissions, MacDonald says there are plans to double the size of two coal-fired plants directly across from Sarnia in Michigan.

"Although the generating station is 15 kilometres away from Aamjiwnaang it will definitely help [once it closes]," she says.

The coal-fired plant is the largest single emitter, followed by an Imperial Oil refinery, a Shell Canada refinery, a Nova Chemicals petrochemical plant, and a refinery operated by Suncor Energy.

Shell is considering the construction of a new, much larger refinery near Sarnia, and MacDonald says the company has pledged to use the latest technology to limit air emissions. It would be helpful if the company then closed down its existing refinery, she adds.

She believes the provincial government must start to enforce existing pollution laws, which many of the plants in the area fail to do.

In addition, most of the large polluters need to retrofit their plants to install the latest in pollution control equipment, she says.

"And some plants may have to close down."

There should be no new industries approved that will add pollutants to the area's airshed, the group says.

MacDonald says there should also be an effort to monitor the cumulative impacts of industrialization in the area on an ongoing basis.

The study was supported by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, which is based in the Sarnia area.

Ecojustice says there has been some recent improvement, with combined air pollution in the Sarnia area having decreased by nine per cent from 2002 to 2005. That came as a result of improvements at an area petrochemical plant and at the Lambton Generating Station.

However, it says about 90% of the emissions generated from the Sarnia area were expected to either show no improvement or increase over the three-year period between 2005 and 2008.

Industry spokesmen have failed to respond to the report, with the industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association (SLEA) issuing no comment.

But, as pointed out by the local daily newspaper, the Sarnia Observer, the association's 2007 annual report notes local progress in the fight against air pollution. Dean Edwardson, the association's general manager, is quoted as saying, "Long-term trends from our monitoring program shows there has been a steady improvement in the quality of the local air we breathe."

The association's report adds: “While local industries are making good progress in reducing their emissions, Sarnia-Lambton and Port Huron continue to feel the effects of air contaminants being carried into our area from the U.S. Midwest on prevailing southwesterly winds. As a result, the rate of emission reductions being achieved by SLEA member companies' sites is outpacing the overall improvement in local ambient air quality."

MacDonald says community leaders in the Sarnia area, historically strongly pro-industry, have shown support for her group and the First Nation.

"[Sarnia] Mayor Mike Bradley is supportive," she says. "I think the mood [among local people] is changing. People are fed up and they want change."

However, she says her group "expects a backlash from industry.”

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