The environmental law charity Ecojustice and a member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation are demanding the Ministry of the Environment investigate a significant flaring event that generated towers of flames at Imperial Oil on Feb. 23, 2017 which had residents of Sarnia and the First Nation in a panic and Americans, viewing from across the St. Clair river, thinking that: “Canada was on fire.”
“We want the Ontario government to actually investigate this event, seriously investigate this event, and investigate it to see if it warrants charges —because we believe it does,” said co-applicant Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer with EcoJustice.
“It was a whole week of flaring and I think that’s what made me worried about being outside – and made me worried about my family,” said co-applicant and Aamjiwnaang member, Vanessa Gray.
The flaring, which was the result of a mechanical problem at Imperial Oil, as well as a grass fire, had Sarnia Councillor Brian White fearing: “this place was going to blow up.”
Aamjiwnaang member, Niki Cottrelle, remembers smelling, “something like burning. And my daughter kept saying that she could feel the ground shaking. So, me and my sister went outside and there was like black smoke going across the back of our yard.”
Internal alarms sounded at Imperial Oil and workers were told to ‘shelter in place.’ However, air monitoring never detected any unsafe levels. Imperial Oil did send out a press release about the incident.
There is no indication the Ministry of the Environment investigated the incident.
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
Despite this, EcoJustice and Gray submitted a formal application to Ontario’s Environment Commissioner on Thursday, asking the Ministry of the Environment to investigate whether the Environmental Protection Act and Regulation 419 were violated because the incident caused “discomfort to persons and loss of enjoyment of normal use of property.”
“Adverse affect could include things like people’s windows vibrating, people being unable to sleep at night because of the glare from the flares… it could be the odour and the irritation that people experience from the fumes that are coming off the flares, the burning eyes, the burning throat, the difficulty breathing. Those are all adverse effects under law in Ontario,” the application stated.
It is up to the Minister of the Environment’s office to decide whether or not an investigation will be conducted. Such an investigation would determine whether charges will be laid. Since January 2013, only four cases in the Sarnia area have resulted in charges from the Ministry of the Environment.
However, an investigation by Global News, in partnership with the Toronto Star, National Observer and two Canadian universities, uncovered 500 incident reports for industrial spills and leaks in the Sarnia area over a two-year period.
In Ontario’s legislature on Thursday, the NDP once again went after the government over concerns of air quality and industrial spills and leaks in Sarnia.
WATCH: Ontario NDP demands Liberal government investigate flaring incident
Particular to the Feb. 23, 2017 flaring incident, MPP Peter Tabuns said: “Residents don’t know what toxins were emitted. So again, will the premier order an investigation and get these families the answers they deserve?”
Environment Minister Chris Ballard responded that he “will make some inquiries in my ministry about this specific one so we can followup.”
While flaring as extreme as the incident on Feb. 23, 2017 is not common, just this past week residents of Aamjiwnaang were left wondering what was happening with their industrial neighbours as alarmingly high flares shot up into the sky.
It was midday Tuesday when Laura Rogers captured cellphone video of a large flare shooting into the sky from the Aamjiwnaang Community Centre.
“It was five-times bigger before I started filming,” Rogers said.
In the video, a trail of black smoke is seen wafting through the sky in the direction of the Suncor plant. When contacted, Suncor’s spokesperson said it is launching a full investigation into the event, and that air monitoring downwind “did not detect any hydrocarbons.”
Suncor says it notified the Ministry of the Environment, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (which posted a Facebook Alert three hours after the event started) and the industry spills phone line. The city of Sarnia never sent out an official alert to notify residents of what was happening.
WATCH: Cell phone video captures high flaring from Aamjiwnaang First Nation on Oct. 17, 2017
Many residents have expressed concern over a lack of communication about industrial spills and leaks in Sarnia.
On Thursday in the legislature, Ballard said: “One of the things we heard was a need to better coordinate that information and I’ve instructed my officials to look into how we can do that.”