May 24th, 2024

Guilbeault seeking ways to end benzene exposure from Sarnia styrene plant

By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press on April 25, 2024.

Environmental leaders are calling for a petrochemical plant that neighbours a First Nation in southern Ontario to remain closed after reports of a benzene leak that continues to affect the community more than a week after its discovery. A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is shown in Sarnia, Ont., on April 21, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Glover

OTTAWA – Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is looking for options to protect a southern Ontario First Nation from repeated exposure to benzene from a nearby chemical plant, as the plant issues a new warning about air pollution.

Leaders from Aamjiwnaang First Nation and international environment advocates wrote to Guilbeault on Thursday asking him to take immediate steps to ensure the Ineos Styrolution plant in Sarnia remains closed until the First Nation deems it safe to reopen.

The plant began a shutdown on April 20, two days after a provincial compliance order demanded Ineos take steps to fix the benzene pollution problem.

In an interview, Guilbeault said he met with the First Nation leaders in Ottawa on Wednesday and wants to help.

“I am worried it’s the fourth order that the province of Ontario issued and the problem doesn’t seem to be solving itself, or the company doesn’t seem to be putting in place the necessary measures,” he said.

“So I have asked the department to see is there anything we can do federally on this? And I haven’t gotten an answer back yet.”

The conversation took place on the sidelines of international plastics treaty talks in Ottawa, where global negotiators are seeking a way to end plastic pollution and limit the toxic chemicals used to make it.

A spokeswoman from Environment and Climate Change Canada said later that the plant is mainly under provincial jurisdiction, though it is subject to federal regulations that require emergency plans for 249 hazardous substances, including benzene.

The ministry has done an inspection of the facility as a result of those regulations.

It also says new regulations are drafted that should “address a major part of the uncontrolled benzene emissions from Ineos.”

The spokeswoman said those regulations will apply to Ineos on an expedited basis, but that’s not likely to be in place until 2026.

The Ineos factory makes styrene for use in making plastics including styrofoam containers and trays and foam packing pellets. Styrene is made from benzene, a petrochemical extracted mainly from crude oil.

The plant has a long history of exceeding provincial limits for benzene pollution, which is a known carcinogen.

Regular air quality monitoring reported by the First Nation shows benzene levels more than 100 times higher than levels recorded in Toronto or Ottawa.

Extremely high levels of benzene were detected again in the surrounding air this month, and many Aamijwnaang residents complained of headaches and extreme dizziness. Several ended up in hospital.

The First Nation has closed many buildings for the time being.

On April 18, the Ontario government ordered the company to take steps to fix leaks of benzene. On April 20, the Frankfurt-based company said it was temporarily stopping work at the plant to address “a mechanical issue.”

Sarnia News Today reported Thursday afternoon that the company had issued an emergency alert midday warning of a dump of benzene resulting from the ongoing shutdown.

The shutdown is supposed to last about two weeks.

Environment groups, including Ecojustice, said in the letter to Guilbeault that the closure should last longer.

“A continued pattern of leaks, lack of compliance and inadequate provincial enforcement and regulation over a period of many years indicates that a long-term shutdown of the facility is required unless Ineos Styrolution can prove its ability and willingness to meet health-based air quality standards and Aamjiwnaang’s demands,” the letter states.

“Recurrent high exposure to benzene puts residents at elevated cancer risks and denies Aamjiwnaang First Nation their ability to engage their inherent and constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights.”

High levels of benzene have thrown the community into peril, with no end in sight, said Janelle Nahmabin, an elected councillor for the First Nation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

– With files from Alessia Passafiume.

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