The Ontario government says it is committed to funding a health study to determine the impact of air pollution on residents living near Sarnia’s Chemical Valley following a Global News investigation that revealed a troubling pattern of potentially dangerous leaks there.
“We are committed to funding a health study to understand the localized impact of air pollution on Sarnia residents, and will be working with the communities in the coming weeks to determine how best to do that,” Environment Minister Chris Ballard said in a statement Monday. “We will also be taking further steps in the near future to ensure that air quality is improved.”
Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown said the study is estimated to cost about $1.7 million.
WATCH: Ont. PC leader Patrick Brown attacks ‘astonishing’ Liberal indifference on ‘Chemical Valley’
The announcement comes after a joint investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, the National Observer, Michener Awards Foundation and journalism schools at Ryerson and Concordia analyzed more than 500 government reports, obtained through Access to Information requests. They documented a troubling frequency of industrial spills and leaks in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley over a two-year period which raises serious concerns about government oversight of industry and how the city’s alert system has been used just once to notify residents about spills since 2014.
The investigation found that a nearly 10-year effort to get a local health study to examine the impacts of the petrochemical industry on Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang was scuttled, despite research and statements from local residents who feared for their health. There are 57 industrial polluters registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments within 25 kilometres of Sarnia.
“There’s more work to do to ensure we balance the needs of the economy and the environment, but these two are not mutually exclusive,” Ballard said.
WATCH: Political reaction to Global News investigation on Sarnia’s ‘Chemical Valley’
Brown slammed the Liberal government’s handling of health concerns from residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation and called for an inquiry.
“We are sickened by the stunning indifference by the government,” Brown told reporters. “When you have serious concerns being raised and reports going back a decade and the only government response is ‘open to looking at it,’ it’s clear there’s something terribly wrong.”
The investigation revealed how residents from Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation believed living near one of Canada’s largest complexes of oil refineries and petro-chemical plants has made them sick.
“Hearing the stories of people affected on the Global expose, I think anyone that watched that, it was moving,” Brown said. “There’s an understanding that finally, finally we have to see some action.”
WATCH: A Global News investigation into a troubling trend of leaks and spills in Sarnia’s ‘Chemical Valley’
Opposition parties also hammered the Liberals during question period Monday. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the investigation “shocking” and asked why residents weren’t warned about the dangerous leak of chemicals including benzene, which causes cancer at high levels of long-term exposure.
“There were over 500 separate incidents … including one leak in 2014 that saw an unsafe level of benzene released into the atmosphere,” Horwath said. “The toxic plume reached nearby residential neighbourhoods but families were never told what the odour was or if it was dangerous.”
Ballard said he recognizes there’s “more to be done” when it comes to regulating industry.
“We are building on previous regulations to lower air pollution and we are committed to funding a health study of local Sarnia residents,” Ballard said during Question Period. “We will be announcing stricter regulations in the coming weeks.”
What happened to the Lambton Community Health Study?
Since 2008, a group consisting of representatives from Aamjiwnaang, the City of Sarnia, labour and local industry have sought funding for an independent study on the city’s air and water and any public health effects.
The Lambton Community Health Study got as far as its third planned phase. Industry in Sarnia stepped up, offering $1.4 million, but requests made for similar funding from the federal and provincial governments were turned down.
Sarnia Coun. Anne Marie Gillis, former chair of the Lambton Community Health Study’s board of directors, had worked to help secure funding for the study and says she was “crushed” when the study failed to be completed.
“I felt crushed and totally defeated, especially when we were so close to actual study itself,” Gillis told Global News. “We had everything in place – ready to go.
Former Health Canada scientist Michel Camus was assigned by the federal government to advise the Lambton Community Health Study group. He said the federal government withheld funding because they didn’t want to set a precedent by paying for municipal studies.
“I was told that it is not in the mandate of the ministry to conduct or finance studies at the municipal level,” Camus said. “They didn’t want to create a precedent by financing one community to address an environmental health issue and while other communities might also have similar issues.
“It was frustrating not to be able to do more for that community but my time was very limited,” he said.
Camus said the pattern of troubling spills and leaks in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley should alarm health officials.
“Certainly past exposures may have had some effects that still go on today for chronic diseases,” he said. “The study should bear both on Aamjiwnaang and the larger Sarnia area.”
He called Monday’s announcement from the Ontario government to help pay for a health study “good news.”
“We will have a better understanding of the reality of potential health effects,” Camus said, but noted any study will be challenging as people move in and out of communities and it will be difficult to track historic exposure levels.
Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said she was “very concerned” by the reporting and her department is investigating why federal funding was withheld.
“I’ve instructed my department officials to look into the decision that was made in 2014 when Minister Ambrose was the health minister,” Pettipas Taylor said. “I certainly want to get an understanding as to why that decision was made.”
Health Canada said in an additional statement it had provided support to the Lambton Community for the first two phases of the study.
“The Department made available an official with medical epidemiology expertise, and Health Canada experts regularly attended Community Health Study Board meetings in the role of advisor,” a spokesperson said in an email. “When the request for funding the third phase of the study was presented to Health Canada in 2014, officials offered advice on mechanisms to obtain funding, and recommended that the study board partner with an academic-based researcher to submit a funding proposal to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research competitive project grant program.”