From Canada’s Chemical Valley to the “Heart of Flint”: Field Notes on Environmental Justice

By Sarah Wilkins, Project Manager

As a Thriving Earth Project Manager, I am always thrilled to see the world out from behind my computer screen: meeting a project team in person, visiting the lands of a First Nation or walking a neighborhood with a community leader. I was granted such a chance in late September and early October this year when I visited three environmental justice communities—that is, socioeconomically vulnerable communities that disproportionately suffer environmental health burdens. In three parts, I share my reflections and welcome your reactions. Part 1 / Part 2

Part 3: Canada’s Chemical Valley

During the Society of Environmental Journalists conference I took advantage of one of the field trips taking place throughout Michigan and neighboring Canada. I chose to participate in the field trip to Canada’s Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario. As a Highly Sensitive Person—characterized as very compassionate and sensitive to subtle changes in my surroundings—this field excursion left me feeling incredibly sad for days.

The ‘Chemical Valley,’ located along the shores of the St. Claire River, is home to 40 percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry. A 2011 study by the World Health Organization ranked Sarnia’s air as the most polluted in Canada. The photo below shows a monument erected to honor those who have died from occupational disease or hazards in local petrochemical facilities of asbestos facilities.

We spoke with a woman who’s lost most of her family to mesothelioma and cancer. Her life has been altered in a way that none of us on the tour could imagine. She passed out brochures for a group she belongs to: Victims of Chemical Valley. Tied to each pamphlet was a small pin with an eye and a tear drop falling on a silhouette of factory buildings and a half circle, showing the broken circle of life. A message of unity was printed in cursive script on the front of each pamphlet: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The refineries stretch on for miles (seen at a distance in this photo) and abut the Aamjiwnaang First Nation lands. About 2,300 Chippewa (Ojibwe) peoples belong to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, 850 of whom live on the Reserve. The tribe has endured dangerous chemical spills of benzene, sulfur dioxide and other toxins. They continue to fight the fossil fuel industry to restore justice and put a stop to the high death rates from cancer, skewed birth ratios (two girls for every boy), and incidents of childhood asthma.

Four members of the Aamjiwnaang Tribe boarded the bus at the park in Sarnia and gave us a guided tour to the miles of refineries dotting the river. Two young members of the tribe shared stories of government betrayal, pregnant dogs birthing deformed puppies from drinking contaminated surface water, and the array of cancers afflicting almost every family living on tribal lands. These two young women are fighting for their voices to be heard by the most powerful industry in the world: the fossil fuel industry.

At the Aamjiwnaang Community Center we heard from a panel of experts including an epidemiologist, an anthropologist, a lawyer from the Canadian environmental law charity Ecojustice, the Environmental Commissioner for Ontario, and a member of the Canadian parliament who is also Ontario’s “shadow” Minister of Health (a role that represents the viewpoint of the political party that is not currently in power). Panelists shared an overview of their work—some outlining the history of oil refining in the valley, others highlighting current research and regulatory efforts—and lawsuits filed against industry and the government.

One of the challenges that emerged from the panel discussion is that a comprehensive study has not been conducted on the cumulative health impacts of emissions over time on tribal members, refinery workers and those living nearby. A comprehensive study is badly desired by the tribe.

At one point during the Q&A, the emotional pain suffered by the tribe was palpable. There was a heaviness to the room as one of the tribal elders shared the names and cancer diagnoses of loved ones who had passed away. There were tears, shouting and anger as community members came toe-to-toe with some of the panelists. I could sense that everyone in the room felt it, including governmental officials put directly on the spot. It left me wondering how we got so lost as a human community…and how far communication and listening can go to starting to address the root causes of pain, suffering and discrimination.

 

Sarah Wilkins editor