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Ontario chemical plant to permanently close after orders to reduce benzene emissions

Click to play video: 'INEOS Styrolution to close Sarnia site'
INEOS Styrolution to close Sarnia site
WATCH: INEOS Styrolution says it will permanently close its industrial plant in Sarnia, Ontario, following intense pressure from both the provincial and federal governments to curb toxic emissions. As Carolyn Jarvis reports, residents of the nearby Aamjiwnaang First Nation had previously said they felt sick after high levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene were detected in the air.

Ineos Styrolution announced that it will permanently shutter operations in southwestern Ontario after both the provincial and federal governments enacted new rules aimed at curbing benzene emissions at its plants.

The chemical manufacturer said Tuesday in a statement that it will cease operations in Sarnia by June 2026.

In April, Global News first reported how Aamjiwnaang First Nation residents said they had become sickened after dangerously high levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene were detected in the air. The community is located in an area known as Chemical Valley.

“The long-term prospects for the Sarnia site have worsened to the point that it is no longer an economically viable operating asset,” the company’s CEO Steve Harrington said.

Ineos said the decision to permanently cease operations was “irrespective of the current situation” after the Ontario government forced the company to temporarily shut down the facility in May. The company has previously said that it “detected no emissions exceeding the prescribed limits.”

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“The economic reality is that we have made significant investments in the Sarnia site for many years to ensure safe and reliable operations,” Harrington said. “Additional large investments that are unrelated to the potential costs of restarting operations would be necessary in the near future. Such investments would be economically impractical given today’s challenging industry environment.”

Click to play video: 'Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels'
Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels

Both the Ontario government and Environment Canada have implemented new regulations to limit benzene emissions over concerns for the air quality near Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which was forced to declare a state of emergency.

Ineos has previously said there are 80 full-time direct jobs and 500 indirect jobs associated with its operations in the region.

Aamjiwnaang residents had mixed reactions to the announcement.

Lynn Rosales, an environment co-ordinator with the First Nation, said she was “super excited inside” when the news broke.

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It was never our intention to bring closure to the facility,” Rosales said. “We merely wanted compliance with industry standards and regulations.”

Former councillor Marina Plain said she was “skeptical” of the Ineos announcement, saying that when one company closes down, another always “pops up.”

Click to play video: 'Ontario takes action against chemical plant after First Nation members fall ill'
Ontario takes action against chemical plant after First Nation members fall ill

“I’m a little bit of a pessimist when it comes to the promises that the industry makes to us,” Plain said. “Nobody ever really just closes. Not around here with the industry, anyway.

“I’ve seen a lot of promises and commitments from industry and it’s never really panned out to our benefit.”

On June 3, Ontario introduced limits that would cap the Ineos plant’s average benzene emissions at 4.5 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) annually, and one-hour average limits at 90 micrograms per cubic metre. The 4.5 annual limit is actually 10 times higher than the province’s current yearly average limits for benzene, which are set at 0.45 ug/m3.

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Benzene is a byproduct of the fuel refining process that Ineos uses to produce styrene needed to manufacture auto parts, electronics and medical appliances.

The chemical can cause symptoms such as dizziness and headaches following short-term exposures. In long-term exposures it can cause cancers such as leukemia.

The provincial regulations came shortly after Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change of Canada, issued an order under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which would compel companies to take action if high levels of benzene were detected between March 1, 2023 and Feb. 29, 2024.

Minister Guilbeault said Tuesday that while protecting air quality and the health of Canadians is a priority, his “thoughts are also with the affected workers.”

“We issued an emergency order after the province of Ontario issued four emergency orders in the last four years to ensure INEOS cleans up their act,” the minister said in a statement. “To poison a community, that’s unacceptable.”

Click to play video: 'Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick'
Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick

In a statement last week, Ineos said it has consistently operated within regulatory standards, and that the new limits have been imposed without “consultation, justification or due process.”

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Ineos said the federal and provincial environment ministries are demanding unsafe timelines that would contribute to higher emissions.

“We will not jeopardize the safety of our employees, neighbours, and community,” the company wrote in a statement.  “Despite our history of compliance, our company is being relentlessly targeted by Canadian Government agencies.”

For members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the fight for a clean and sustainable environment will continue, Rosales said.

“They’re only one facility of some 60-plus facilities that are around us,” she said. “The fight is not over.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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