Ontario’s environmental watchdog blasted the province for turning a blind eye to pollution affecting Indigenous communities, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation, following an investigation by Global News.
Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe sharply condemned the “outrageous” pollution adversely affecting the health of Indigenous peoples across Ontario, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ont., and the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations northwest of Dryden, Ont.
“One of the most shameful (failures) is the unjust pollution affecting Indigenous peoples,” Saxe said during a press conference Tuesday. “Both governments and business have longed turned a blind eye to pollution of Indigenous communities.”
WATCH: Environment watchdog blasts Kathleen Wynne’s government over pollution in First Nation communities
In her annual report – called Good Choices, Bad Choices – the environmental commissioner says the government must make environmental justice part of its reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
“The Aamjiwnaang First Nation located in Sarnia and surrounded by heavy industry suffers some of the worst air pollution in the country,” she said. “All together the industrial facilities of Chemical Valley release millions of kilograms of air pollution in the Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia air shed every year.”
The release of the report comes after 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.
The investigation also raised questions about whether companies and the provincial government are properly warning residents of Sarnia and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation when potentially toxic substances — including benzene, known to cause cancer at high levels of long-term exposure — are leaked.
Last week, a report obtained by Global news detailed how Ontario’s Environment Ministry ignored warnings raised by its own engineers about public safety at petrochemical plants in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
The September 2017 report, prepared by the Professional Engineers Government of Ontario (PEGO), claimed the ministry has for years ignored concerns from the First Nations community of Aamjiwnaang — which is surrounded on three sides by oil refineries and chemical plants.
Saxe outlined how “dangerous pollution” in Aamjiwnaang can cause sirens in the community to go off indicating the air is not safe to breathe.
“Such conditions would not be tolerated elsewhere in Ontario, yet they have long been deemed unworthy of priority effort or expense,” she said. “After decades of neglect the province is finally taking some steps but the pollution that these communities face is still outrageous.
WATCH: A Global News investigation into a troubling trend of leaks and spills in Sarnia’s ‘Chemical Valley’
Aamjiwnaang Chief Joanne Rogers praised Saxe’s report and said it’s the government’s duty to ensure the health and safety of First Nations communities
“When people are at the table discussing Sarnia, Aamjiwnaang wants to be at that table as well,” Rogers said.
She also questioned government delays in updating its sulfur dioxide regulations.
“Why is it taking so long to come up with SO2 regulations? We breathe that air so why is there delay, after delay,” Rogers said. “Everybody is aware and it’s time, it’s time to do something safe and healthy.”
Environment Minister Chris Ballard said his office will review the report but stated that more work needs to support Indigenous communities in the province.
“We will soon post for consultation a new sulphur dioxide air standard to protect people’s health, including children and our most vulnerable,” Ballard said. “We will also propose a clarification of requirements for facilities during a range of scenarios such as start-up and shut–down operations and acid-gas flaring at petroleum facilities.”
Ballard said the government is also working to fund a health study to better understand the impact of pollution on First Nations communities and Sarnia-area residents.
“We are also committed to taking action in the coming weeks on the cumulative effects in heavily industrialized areas of the province, including Sarnia,” Ballard said.
The report from the environmental commissioner also outlined the lack of access to safe drinking by First Nations communities, and pressured the government to take action.
“Thirty-six First Nations communities in Ontario are affected by a drinking water advisory that has been in effect for more than a year,” she said. “Of those, 17 have been affected by more than 10 years.”
Ballard said the government is working to address boil water advisories and has committed $85 million in funding to address the mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system.
“Ontario is also working with First Nations and the federal government to resolve all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities in the next five years,” he said.
Other highlights from the commissioner’s report include how the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is failing to protect the species at risk, including the Algonquin wolf. There may be as few as 250 mature Algonquin wolves in the wild, and trapping and hunting remain major threats to the species’ survival, the report says.
It also warns that toxic algae is a growing threat to Ontario’s lakes and how voluntary programs to limit phosphorus entry into the waterways need to be strengthened.