The federal NDP and Green Party slammed Ottawa’s inaction Tuesday after an investigation by journalists – including Global News – revealed major concerns about government oversight and health risks for residents living near one of Canada’s largest complexes of oil refineries and petro-chemical plants.
NDP environment critic Linda Duncan said the federal government “dropped the ball” in its response to health concerns in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation.
“This should be a wake-up call,” Duncan said. “Where has the health minister been in both the Conservative and now Liberal government over the last decade while these concerns have been raised by the First Nation and by the people of Sarnia?”
WATCH: Global News investigation prompts about-face by Ont. gov’t
Duncan said that under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act the federal government can intervene in situations where there are concerns about potentially-dangerous leaks.
“The health minister has a mandatory duty under that federal statute to take action when information comes to their attention that a toxin may be causing health impacts,” Duncan said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the situation regarding Aamjiwnaang First Nation – surrounded on three sides by petrochemical plants – is “one of Canada’s top examples of environmental racism,” and officials shouldn’t wait for a study to start exploring options to reduce harmful spills and emissions.
“To be in a First Nations community to be in any community surrounded by fences and barbed wire and ringed by a petro chemical industry with emissions that are health risks is truly horrific,” May said.
The reaction from comes a leaked document obtained by Global News revealed how Ontario’s environment ministry ignored public safety warnings raised by its own engineers regarding petrochemical plants in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Tuesday her office is working very closely with the Ontario government on the issue.
“The situation with the First Nations in Sarnia is a very worrying situation. We’re encouraged that the Ontario government is taking action,” McKenna said. “We need to make sure that we have a strong regulatory regime to make sure that this doesn’t happen and we are looking at what we can do to strengthen the Canadian environmental protection act.”
A joint investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, the National Observer, Michener Awards Foundation and journalism schools at Ryerson and Concordia exposed a troubling pattern of potentially toxic spills and leaks in the area known as Chemical Valley, which is home to 57 industrial polluters registered with the Canadian and U.S. governments.
WATCH: A Global News investigation into a troubling trend of leaks and spills in Sarnia’s ‘Chemical Valley’
The investigation also raised questions about whether companies and the provincial government adequately warn residents of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation when potentially dangerous chemicals are leaked. On Monday, Ontario Environment Minister Chris Ballard said the province will fund a study into the health effects of air pollution on residents of Chemical Valley.
Aamjiwnaang Chief Joanne Rogers said her community’s safety concerns go back years but was encouraged by the announcement of a health study.
“We’ve always had concerns about our health and safety,” she said. “I believe (the health study is) just going to probably document what we already believe, and that is that pollution has an effect on our community’s health.”
On Monday, Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said she was “very concerned” by the investigation and her department is looking into the decision made in 2014 under the previous Conservative government to not fully fund a health study.
WATCH: Aamjiwnaang chief wants community concerns heard over industrial spills
“I’ve instructed my department officials to look into the decision that was made in 2014 when Minister Ambrose was the health minister,” Petitpas Taylor said. “I certainly want to get an understanding as to why that decision was made.”
*With a file from Toronto Star’s Emma McIntosh