Fighting for Air; The Environmental Racism of Chemical Valley and Aamjiwnaang

Brienna French


On August 21st, I had the opportunity to join a tour through Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and Aamjiwnaang, dubbed the ‘Toxic Tour’. This tour gave insight into the environmental and health impacts, environmental racism, and legal battle surrounding the actions of the 63 high emitting facilities bordering the reserve, Aamjiwnaang.

Countless environmental incidents have occurred in Chemical Valley, including benzene leaks, and chemical spills into nearby wetlands and rivers. These incidents poison the air, water, earth, and organisms that live within the vicinity of Chemical Valley, including Aamjiwnaang.

On the way to our first stop, the tour guide pointed out a patch of grass, where 86 pipelines lay intertwining amongst each other, just beneath the earth’s surface. Some of these pipelines are well over 100 years old, and have yet to be replaced. As a result, multiple pipelines have started leaking, including one carrying the toxin benzene which leaked for ten years before efforts were made to stop the leakage. One of benzene’s many problems is its ability to spread through air, water, and dirt. Once it spread around the other pipelines, the complete cleanup of the chemical became virtually impossible. There is currently no legislation in Ontario requiring companies to create a spill response or action plan, and  minor spills, depending on the threshold of the chemicals, do not need to be reported to the Ministry of Environment. Also, if a pipeline leaks beyond the property of the chemical, oftentimes depending on the magnitude of the spill, companies are required to clean up the spill once, without further check-ups.

Many of these corporations take little consideration of environmental consequences the environmental when making decisions. The amount of chemicals that have been dumped into the surrounding fresh water is astronomical. For example, Dow Chemical, an oil and gas mining corporation that moved out of the area in 2009, spilled 11,000 liters of dry cleaning chemicals into the St. Clair River. This chemical spill is just one example out of countless incidents in the area. This causes a domino effect, harming other organisms in the ecosystem.

Wildlife within the general area of Chemical Valley suffers because of these leaks and the poor legislation in place. Also, this negatively impacts the health of the people in the area, which is why members of the Aamjiwnaang reserve have been entrenched in a long standing legal battle to solve this problem.

This situation is a case of environmental racism. The corporations in Chemical Valley, such as Imperial Oil, Shell, and Enbridge, commit many environmental infractions with their hazardous spills and emissions in accordance with Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, and the government recognizes how detrimental these chemicals are to human health. This was evident when they relocated a French settler town, Blue Water, because of the danger, and yet the aboriginal reserve has had little response to their plight. They have been lobbying the government for years to strengthen environmental protection, and after unsatisfactory response, have advanced to legal proceedings against the government.

The corporations responsible for Chemical Valley have used many tactics in an attempt to normalize their actions to the People of Aamjiwnaang. They’ve gone so far as to distribute fridge magnets to families in the community listing the procedures to follow in the event of a chemical leak, and how to decipher the meanings behind different sirens.

In attempt to paint a picture of life near Chemical Valley in our minds, our tour guide recited her personal stories having grown up normalized to the standards of living she has been subjected to. Her childhood memories included being afraid of swimming in bodies of water, because she had been consistently taught to fear the streams on the reserve. Residents are told to eat a maximum of one locally caught fish per month, as a precaution against consuming a harmful amount of toxins. The forested swamp at the mouth of the reserve does not freeze over during winter months when temperatures fall below zero, as a result of the chemical content of the water.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-6-34-18-pmAs these chemicals continue to cycle through the ecosystem, more plants grow with toxins incorporated throughout them. This prevents the use of many natural resources by the People, including plants such as the four sacred medicines, tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. There is no evidence to show the long-term effects of being surrounded by these toxins on human health, as the reserve has not been provided with adequate resources to track this. However, the effect these emissions have on health is suggested through the birthrate of having two girls born for every boy. While there is no proven correlation between emissions and the birth rate, this is the only known community with a birth rate of this ratio and it is suggested that certain metals are linked to male miscarriages.

Despite lobbying efforts and calls for action through the community, the Ontario government has not responded to calls for help. The importance of solidarity can’t be overlooked and we must take a stand with regards to these issues of human rights and environmental crimes.

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