By Sean Craig and Carolyn Jarvis with Global News, Emma McIntosh, Sawyer Bogdan, Morgan Bocknek and Robert Mackenzie with the Ryerson School of Journalism Global News
Published October 14, 2017
23 min read
Ron Plain will most likely be dead in 12 months.
In November 2016, his doctors diagnosed him with a rare form of cancer that prevents the blood cells in his bone marrow from maturing. The disease is part of a group called myelodysplastic syndromes, or MDS, and his case is terminal.
Nearly as punishing as death, in his case, is the journey there.
“Your bone marrow kind of looks like an Aero bar, full of bubbles,” he says, teeing up a contrasting simile: “Mine lays flat and it looks kind of like a snakeskin going down.”
The result of his condition is constant fatigue, he says, because his bone marrow doesn’t have the oxygen concentration that it should.
Worse yet, many of the drugs that could be used to help with the pain and fatigue that he suffers from are potentially bad for his bone marrow.
“I’m a pharmaceutical experiment, I guess,” says Plain, who turned 55 in the hospital while awaiting his diagnosis. “We try to find something to stay aground as long as I can.”
It’s an excruciating way to die: in varying states of languor and with pain that runs as deep as your bones until the very last exhale.
“I get a blood transfusion every Tuesday, and then I go see my pain doctor, and I get 21 needles,” he says. “And then I come home and I’ve got the energy to maybe wash the dishes, take a break and relax for awhile, get up and sweep the floor, take a break. That’s my day. That’s my excitement. That’s what I can do.”
But, in his routine, Plain has found “an acceptance, not a mourning.”
And that acceptance comes, in part, because he saw this coming.
“We expected cancer,” he says. “Nobody was shocked. My wife and I sat there in the chair and said, ‘yeah we figured.’”
They figured because of where they live.
WATCH: Carolyn Jarvis’ full documentary investigating a troubling trend of leaks and spills in the Sarnia area – and how it impacts the people who live nearby.
Ron Plain, his wife and children live in Sarnia, Ont. He has spent the last 25 years living between the southwestern Ontario city and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, a Chippewa community at the south end of Sarnia.
With approximately 900 residents, the First Nation is a mix of bucolic and suburban calm that stretches over 1,250 hectares (3,100 acres) of groves, marshes and farmland. Tree canopies part for modest and welcoming 20th century homes.
Aamjiwnaang’s band office is situated adjacent to a baseball field and the clack of ambitious batter swings echo against its walls on summer afternoons. But stand at home plate and extend your arm to left field like the most cocksure hitter, and you can see what Ron Plain says he saw coming.
Across the street, immediately north, directly bordering Aamjiwnaang territory is a different kind of canopy: a mammoth industrial skyline, where smokestacks and flares lance shades of grey and orange upward through the blue and white hues of the clouds and sky above.
Aamjiwnaang is situated at the heart of one of the largest petrochemical complexes in Canada. Major producers including Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Suncor Energy, and Plains Midstream Canada all operate plants within walking distance.
In total, there are 57 polluters registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments within 25 kilometres. (Michigan is across the St. Clair River.)
This is a story about living here.
But here is not “Chemical Valley.” It’s not some nickname. Here is Aamjiwnaang and here is Sarnia, Ont. – the neighbouring city of over 72,000 that grew up in the 20th century and became an industrial powerhouse.
Here are places that grapple with how to reconcile the past and the present of industry — which provide tens of thousands with their livelihoods — with the past and present of their communities — where some residents worry about what industrial pollution in their environment has meant for their health, and where the legacy of colonialism has left one First Nation community at the centre of what Ontario’s former environment commissioner called an “historic failure.”
A joint investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, Michener Awards Foundation and Concordia and Ryerson Universities has revealed significant concerns about whether the people who live in these communities, where the heavy concentration of industry means toxic chemical releases are routine, can expect due diligence from their government in alerting them to the possible risks they face.
At 3:25 p.m., in the middle of a frigid afternoon on Feb. 7, 2014, an alarm went off inside the Imperial Oil Refinery in Sarnia.
A fuse leading to a heater had blown, causing a pipe to freeze and rupture, and over 500 kilograms of hydrocarbon gas spilled into the air.
The plant went into lockdown, workers scurried to designated safe havens as the smell of gas drifted into nearby neighbourhoods.
Residents reported burning eyes, dizziness and nausea. One woman on Facebook said the release “made my children start coughing and get headaches,” another observed that she suffered a “headache” and “now I can’t stop vomiting.”
Sarnia’s hospital declared a “code grey,” closing its air intake and postponing a surgery.
Imperial notified Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment of the rupture and put out a press release.
And that was that. At 8:28 p.m. an all-clear was issued.
Local air monitoring in Sarnia hadn’t detected any “unsafe levels.”
But what most residents didn’t know was that another spill was already underway.
At six in the morning the next day, Feb. 8, Dwayne Debruyne of Plains Midstream Canada phoned the local office of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s Spills Action Centre, the province’s hub for reporting the release of pollutants.
Documents show odour complaints, which the fire department suspected were coming from Plains Midstream, were received at 2:45 p.m. and 5:49 p.m. on the previous afternoon, as the city responded to the leak at Imperial.
But Plains Midstream didn’t call the Ministry to report a spill until 15 hours later. Plains Midstream defends it didn’t have to, since the volume released Feb. 7 did not meet reporting thresholds.
“There’s a floating roof in the tank … and some of the product inside, condensate, has leaked on to the roof,” Debruyne said on the call, Feb. 8. “It’s still in the tank. I wouldn’t classify it as a spill. It’s just on the roof instead of being in the tank.”
Carly Weir, the Ministry of the Environment employee who answered the call, wasn’t so sure.
“I mean it sounds like a spill to me,” she replied. “I don’t know.”
“It is an odour release, yes,” responded Debruyne. “OK, so it’s a spill.”
“OK, we’ll call it a spill,” Weir said.
In a statement, Plains Midstream said there were no air safety concerns as a result of the incident, and at no time was the public at risk. The company said the spill was “contained” and it did not report the incident until Feb. 8 because the spill did not meet “Ontario reporting thresholds.” The company also says it fixed the cause of the spill.
But just over a kilometre away, outside the local Harley Davidson dealership, air monitoring conducted by a third party, hired by Plains Midstream, showed the level of benzene, a known carcinogen reached 50 parts per billion. The sample was only taken over a few minutes, but if it persisted for half an hour, it would have been 22 times the provincial half-hour standard that’s in effect today. The Ontario government had not yet implemented the half-hour standard when the Plains Midstream incident occurred and the air samples taken are too short to determine the level of benzene over a half-hour period.
Approximately four hours later, just down the street, the level of benzene was still twice today’s half-hour standard, if it was sustained for 30 minutes.
“I actually went there Saturday morning,” said John Kingyens, the chief of Sarnia’s Fire Rescue Services. “And they had given me no indication that there was any problem.”
The Ministry of the Environment was aware of the leak and a field report shows that the benzene levels were called in. However, no government official showed up. The ministry says it wasn’t necessary since the benzene levels were well below its emergency screening values. It also says, even today, Plains Midstream isn’t being held to the half-hour standard.
“I shouldn’t laugh… that is pathetic,” said Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer with the environmental law charity EcoJustice. “That means no one actually went to the site and looked at it. Obviously, charges should have been laid. There’s absolutely no doubt. This is evidence of violation… they filled out a report and just left it.”
There was no investigation.
Two former ministers of the environment noted their concern.
“If we saw numbers this alarming, there would’ve been an inspection, there would’ve been an abatement plan put in place, and I guess there would’ve been charges,” said Chris Stockwell, a Progressive Conservative who was environment minister from 2002 to 2003.
“This is the kind of incident where the ministry staff should be on site and should be involved in the investigation of what happened,” added Bud Wildman, a New Democrat who was environment minister from 1993 to 1995.
Plains Midstream claims that the February 2014 spill did not pose any threat to the community.
“There were no injuries or air safety concerns during the event and at no time was there a risk to the public,” the company said, in a statement. “Third-party air monitors set up at locations downwind and upwind of the plant continued to indicate that the air remained safe.”
Incident reports, like the one which documents the Plains Midstream spill, are filed by the Ministry of the Environment every time a leak or spill is reported by a company.
More than 500 incident reports from 2014 and 2015 were obtained for this investigation and point to a concerning regularity of spills and leaks in the Sarnia region – with a sometimes questionable government response.
A 2014 incident report detailed an incident where 338 kilograms of ammonia was spilled, though it was not an exceedance. It received no field response from the ministry.
A January 2016 report detailed a release of sulphurous gases that occurred during an unplanned shutdown, which “exceeded S02 emission to… boiler stack.” It received no field response either.
A March 2014 incident report showed a valve was left open for three months “so the refinery fuel gas was being emitted straight to the atmosphere.” In this case, no field response, and no charges were laid.
In fact, since January 2013, only four cases in the Sarnia area have resulted in charges from the Ministry of the Environment, despite the hundreds of spills reported.
(One of those four cases was the Imperial Oil spill of Feb. 7, 2014, which resulted in an $812,000 fine. Imperial Oil did take steps to fix the problem that caused the leak.)
“Well, if there are no consequences, there are no deterrents,” says Joyce McLean — who served as a senior policy adviser at the Ministry of the Environment for five years in the 1990s.
Reviewing a handful of the incident reports she added, “I’d say, on the surface, it seems like government oversight is lacking.”
For example, she notes the case of the ammonia release, all government communication was done over the phone, according to the incident report: “I think it’s kind of typical because without an active on the ground presence the Ministry of the Environment is relying on industry to tell them their woes, and their problems and their spills and whether they’re compliant.”
The current Ontario Minister of the Environment, Chris Ballard, says the government’s reporting protocols are focused on responding to every spill, though not necessarily in person.
“Those 500 reports, I will say that everything is responded to and I have asked this question of my staff and of the field staff,” he noted in an interview. “Everything that we’re made aware of, we respond to in some way. But it’s a scaled response.”
“I would rather make sure businesses feel more comfortable reporting a spill so that we can educate them about how not to have that happen again than to have them so terrified that they don’t want to talk to authorities, that they try and hide,” said Ballard.
A ministry spokesperson added that, in the last decade, the government has brought in 68 new or updated air standards and, while acknowledging that “more can be done to strengthen existing protections in certain areas” said that stricter standards have helped air quality in Sarnia “improve noticeably over the past 10 years.”
And it’s true that the ministry has taken an aggressive stance, legislatively, on reducing emissions.
One chemical in particular that has been targeted is benzene, the substance leaked by Plains Midstream in 2014 and a toxin that has been linked to leukemia and other cancers.
In July 2016, the Ontario government introduced the strictest benzene standard in the country, something the association that represents industry in Sarnia says is unrealistic.
“We can’t meet that standard,” says Dean Edwardson, a spokesperson for the industry group, Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association. “We’re going to do everything we can to limit the amount of benzene that might be coming from our facilities.”
According to a 2016 government document, it’s estimated the refineries in Sarnia release three to 10 times the annual benzene limit. As a result, seven facilities (including petrochemical plants and refineries) were exempted from the new standard and were instead required to make equipment upgrades.
In fact, Sarnia is not alone: most cities in Ontario didn’t come close to meeting the new annual level. However, in Sarnia the industry’s own air monitor recorded its highest annual benzene reading in three years, nearly four times the new limit, in 2016.
And these new, stringent standards are said to be health-based, suggesting there is an acknowledged cost if they fail to be reached.
Oil was first discovered in “Chemical Valley” in the late 19th century, and industry grew at a tremendous pace during the Second World War when Sarnia became a producer of synthetic rubber after the Allied Forces were cut off from rubber imports sourced in Eastern Asia.
Today, the Sarnia region is a powerhouse in Canada’s petrochemical industries. Zoning laws were lax or non-existent for much of the industry’s development, which is why plants sit next to residential neighbourhoods in the city and in Aamjiwnaang.
“This is a historic failure,” said Gord Miller, then Ontario’s environmental commissioner, upon the release of his 2014 annual report. “Current land use rules would not allow such a concentration of industry so close to a residential community. ”
The City of Sarnia, including Aamjiwnaang, records more hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses than nearby Windsor and London, while the incidence of certain cancers, namely lung cancer and mesothelioma, exceeds the provincial average. This could be attributable to a legacy of asbestos exposure in the plants.
Jim Brophy, who was at the frontline, dealing with those impacted by the asbestos exposure has seen as much disease and sickness in Sarnia as anyone. The former executive director of the Sarnia Occupational Health Clinic, who held the post from 1993 to 2008, is deeply critical of today’s state of affairs.
“I don’t care what the Ministry of the Environment or Labour or Health says,” he added. “They would not move their families there. They wouldn’t move into the Aamjiwnaang community. Anybody who is informed on this issue knows how dangerous this really is.”
“This is a classic example of environmental racism,” said Brophy. “There’s no question, this would never be tolerated in a white community.”
But where the scale of the problem at hand might seem too daunting, too complex and slow-moving to resolve in one lifetime, Brophy sees hope.
Or, rather, he’s put his hope in, who he calls, the “Joan of Arc of her community.”
WATCH ABOVE: Ada Lockridge of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ont. documented what it’s like living in Chemical Valley.
In 2009, Lockridge and Ron Plain managed to secure a promise from the province: that the Ministry of the Environment would review the way it regulates pollution in areas like Sarnia.
While the government currently looks at emissions on a facility-by-facility basis when regulating industry, Lockridge and Plain believe policy ought to consider the cumulative effects that all nearby facilities in a region have on air quality.
Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights sets out a legal duty for the ministry to complete a review like the one promised “within a reasonable time,” but eight years later the promise is unfulfilled.
In July of this year, Lockridge filed for a judicial review in provincial court, hoping that the justice system will intervene and order the review.
According to her application for review, she submitted her original request to protect all Ontario communities with significant sources of industrial air emissions, but also to protect her community.
In his 2014 report, Gord Miller agreed that the current system for reporting spills was insufficient, writing that “the Aamjiwnaang First Nation suffers a daily assault on their ancestral land as a result of this disturbing historical legacy, coupled with contemporary indifference.”
“Given the gravity of this situation, the ministry must be unyielding in its abatement and enforcement work throughout Chemical Valley,” he added, suggesting that the ministry’s “largely reactive approach is clearly not sufficient to prevent” spills from occurring in the first place. “Greater proactive efforts must be made to eliminate the adverse effects of these facilities on their neighbours and the environment. Ongoing spills from the industrial facilities operating in the area are simply unacceptable.”
The Ministry of the Environment now claims its review will be complete and made public this fall. In a statement it noted that data from the local air monitoring station on the First Nation indicates that contaminants have decreased in recent years.
Lockridge, however, is skeptical.
“Sometimes, well they tease and call me Ada Brockovich,” she jokes. “But yeah, I don’t look like — what’s her name — Julia Roberts. I have my own way of getting information.”
She worries that, because residents in the area are exposed to so many different chemicals, the combined exposures are taking a significant toll.
“If I fed you arsenic every day, gave you just a little bit every day… I’m poisoning you — you could charge me,” she says. “But these companies, they’re leaking things every day, and slowly doing harm, and they just seem to be getting a slap on the wrist or nothing at all.”
Some residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang fear Lockridge is right, and that the cumulative impact of living there have cost loved ones the ultimate price.
“How can you live in a town where I can take you to a graveyard where this is, where the afternoon shift is buried and this is where the day shift is buried?” asks Ron Plain.
Wilson Plain and his wife Dorothy, who live in the south end of Aamjiwnaang, lost their son Jeremy to leukemia when he was 13.
“You took him to the hospital with a bloody nose and bruising,” he said. “And they came back and said, ‘Your son’s got leukemia.’”
“Within six days he was gone.”
Katherine – not her real name as her other sons still work in the industry and she fears repercussions –watched her father die of asbestosis and one of her sons die of leukemia.
“He was diagnosed with leukemia caused from benzene exposure,” she says. “Because that’s what he did for a living. He was exposed to it every time he pulled his truck into the rack. That’s where they load the product into the truck.”
(While studies have found rates of leukemia to be higher in workers exposed to high levels of benzene, it’s not the only cause – and the cause, or causes of the disease in these cases are uncertain.)
But, despite any anecdotes, data on leukemia and blood cancer rates don’t indicate more occurrences in Lambton County than the rest of Ontario.
However, Jim Brophy thinks the extent of available data is not sufficient to draw any conclusions, pointing in particular to the fact that cancer data is only released on a county level.
“Suppose all the leukemia cases are people living on the fence line or working in those plants,” he says.
Brophy, and Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain and Gord Miller and Ecojustice and many families who have lost loved ones, argue that there is a need for a comprehensive study of the impacts that the industry has on the population in the Sarnia region.
But getting a study done will be no easy task, and one major effort failed after hitting a wall in search of funding.
A board of county-wide stakeholders, including representatives from Aamjiwnaang, the City of Sarnia, labour and local industry spent a decade trying to put together a “study of the environmental impacts on its citizenry due to the proximity of the petrochemical industry.”
The Lambton Community Health Study got as far as its third planned phase, when it hoped to raise funds for research. The industry in Sarnia stepped up, offering $1.4 million. Requests were made for roughly equivalent shares of funding from the federal and provincial governments, but according to the board’s Chair, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care did not reply (letters were mailed to former health minister Deb Matthews in April 2014 and current minister Eric Hoskins in August 2014) and the federal department at Health Canada declined to provide funding, though did offer “in-kind scientific support.”
There is also an absence of information when it comes to these disturbingly frequent spills.
Take, for example, earlier this year. Around supper hour on Thursday, Feb. 23 the skyline in Sarnia shone bright with orange fire.
Megan Hayden, who was across the St. Clair River in Michigan, says she could hear and feel the flames: “It almost sounded like the engine of a freighter. It’s like choo, choo, choo…”
There was a mechanical fire at Imperial Oil, as well as a grass fire.
“It was absolutely anxiety-inducing,” said Brian White, a Sarnia city councilor.
Internal alarms sounded at the facility, workers were told to shelter in place.
But air monitoring never detected any unsafe levels and most people in Sarnia never knew what had happened.
Imperial Oil issued a press release, but the city didn’t send out an alert.
Jacob Westfall, who runs the private alerting system NetAlerts in Sarnia, says residents aren’t being properly alerted to spills and incidents in the community.
“The public has asked repeatedly in the past: we want to be notified when there is a significant flare, because that means a lot of flames, a lot of noise, and a lot of smoke,” he said. “So even though there’s not necessarily a risk to me, I want to know what’s happening.”
Westfall’s alerting system is used by the Saskatchewan and Alberta governments, and has proved effective during emergencies including last year’s Fort McMurray wildfires.
He and Aamjiwnaang, through its own alert system, sent out notices on Feb. 23.
“They are trying to protect the reputations of the city as well as protect the reputations of the industry,” he argues, speaking of the lack of a municipal alert.
“It’s definitely an image issue. We want to be seen as a safe community for people to live in.”
The official alert system of the City of Sarnia can reach tens of thousands in a matter of minutes.
But while the system is operated by Sarnia police, it’s actually funded by the local industry, who Cal Gardner, Sarnia’s emergency management co-ordinator says is responsible for notifying them and classifying the incident.
In the three years since it was created, the city’s alert system has been used once for an industrial leak or spill – a far cry from the 500 incidents the Ministry of the Environment made note of in its reporting, for the two-year period between 2014 and 2016.
The city’s defence is that too many alerts would result in a boy who cried wolf scenario, and that the system should therefore be used sparingly. The city also says it will notify the public if they are at risk.
“That’s them trying to deflect,” argues Westfall. “Something that is relevant to me, I do not tune that out. The public does not panic if you give them information: people panic in the absence of information.”
And therein lies a central conflict at the heart of the issues in Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang: how much information do you need to know?
For its part, the provincial government says it is addressing problems in Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang.
“I see what’s happening in that community and it really concerns me, having grown up in the countryside with fresh air and clean water and fields to run through myself,” said Environment Minister Chris Ballard. “I am so concerned about what I hear that’s happening in this community. This is not right.”
Industry representatives, having shown a willingness to fund a local health study, say they too are sensitive to the issues.
“As long as we have a reliance on these products in society, there still will be a need for hydrocarbons,” said Dean Edwardson of the industry group, Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association. “We have and we continue to produce these materials in an environmentally responsible manner.”
Ada Lockridge, however, says some people have resigned themselves to the reality that this is the cost of working and living in Chemical Valley.
“Well yeah, there’s jobs for people, and a lot of those people are my friends,” she says.
“They get paid very well. They have all the finest toys, you know pools and boats and motorcycles, and all that. Once they end up getting sick they just say that’s the price they pay for working in the valley.”
This investigation is the result of the largest ever collaboration of journalists in Canada, from Global News, the Toronto Star, the National Observer and four journalism schools at Concordia, Ryerson, Regina and UBC.
Patti Sonntag, Michener Awards Foundation
Sandra Bartlett, Global News
Stephanie Gordon, Global News
Fallon Hewitt, Global News
Nathan Sing, Global News
Claire Loewen, Concordia University Department of Journalism
Michael Wrobel, Concordia University Department of Journalism
Chris Aitkens, Concordia University Department of Journalism
Jeremy Glass-Pilon, Concordia University Department of Journalism
Lucas Napier-Macdonald, Concordia University Department of Journalism
Patrick Cain, Global News
Trevor Owens, Global News
Patti Sonntag, Michener Fellow/Concordia University