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I Left My Lungs in Aamjiwnaang: Breathing the Most Polluted Air in Canada With Video


Environment  (tags: animals, Canada, climate-change, conservation, CO2emissions, ecosystems, endangered, energy, globalwarming, greenhousegases, habitatdestruction, healthconditions, politics, pollution, Sustainabililty )

Kit
- 389 days ago - vice.com
he first thing you notice about Sarnia, Ontario, is the smell: a potent mix of gasoline, melting asphalt, and the occasional trace of rotten egg. Shortly after my arrival I already felt unpleasantly high and dizzy, like I wasn't getting enough air.



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Kit B. (276)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 6:52 am
Photo Credit: Vice Magazine and TV/HBO - Chemical Valley seen from a small plane


Top of article is a video explanation. You may not have heard of Sarnia, or Aamjiwnaang, after watching the video and reading this article, you will know far more.

The first thing you notice about Sarnia, Ontario, is the smell: a potent mix of gasoline, melting asphalt, and the occasional trace of rotten egg. Shortly after my arrival I already felt unpleasantly high and dizzy, like I wasn’t getting enough air. Maybe this had something to do with the bouquet of smokestacks in the southern part of town that, all day every day, belch fumes and orange flares like something out of a Blade Runner-esque dystopia.

Sarnia is home to more than 60 refineries and chemical plants that produce gasoline, synthetic rubbers, and other materials that the world’s industries require to create the commercial products we know and love. The city’s most prominent and profitable attraction is an area about the size of 100 city blocks known as the Chemical Valley, where 40 percent of Canada’s chemical industry can be found packed together like a noxious megalopolis. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, Sarnia’s air is the most polluted air in Canada. There are more toxic air pollutants billowing out of smokestacks here than in all of the provinces of New Brunswick or Manitoba.

Nestled inside this giant ring of chemical production, surrounded on all sides by industrial plants, sits a First Nations reservation called Aamjiwnaang where about 850 Chippewa have lived for over 300 years. Aamjiwnaang was originally a Chippewa hunting ground, but the area was turned into a First Nations reserve in 1827, after the British government snatched up an enormous amount of Native land. Today, it’s one of the most singularly poisonous locations in North America, yet neither the local nor the national government has announced any plan to launch a health study to properly investigate the side effects that are hurting the local residents, who inhale the Chemical Valley’s emissions every time they step outside.

In 2002, the Aamjiwnaang Environmental Committee was founded. This activist group formed in response to a plan by Suncor to build what would have been Canada’s largest ethanol plant right next to the reservation. Suncor is one of Canada’s energy giants that specializes in crude-oil processing—in April of this year, they caught some heat after spilling a chemical used to blend biofuel into a British Columbian inlet. They informed the nearby First Nations people, who live on the inlet, days later. As for their ethanol plant in Aamjiwnaang, Suncor eventually halted construction on the project in response to the Environmental Committee’s protests, and instead built a desulphurization plant next to the reserve’s burial ground.

It wasn’t until the Evironmental Committee came together that people realized how bad things had gotten. I spoke to Wilson Plain, one of the committee’s founders, about Aamjiwnaang’s communal realization that the Chemical Valley was hurting their population. “As a community we were not really aware of what was being released from the plants,” Wilson told me. “When we started having regular meetings of the Environmental Committee, people started recalling how many incidents we had.”

The committee also began commissioning studies, like the one published in 2005 that analyzed birth rates on the reservation. A healthy community should have roughly a 1:1 birth ratio of females to males, but the study found that the Chemical Valley’s ratio had reached nearly 2:1—a statistical anomaly that had never been recorded in any human population, though it has been documented in animal populations that live in extremely polluted areas.

Another study conducted between 2004 and 2005 by the environmental activist organization Ecojustice found that 39 percent of the women in Aamjiwnaang had suffered through at least one stillbirth or miscarriage. Since then, however, there have been no inquiries by federal or local authorities to discern exactly what is causing these abnormalities, let alone any attempt to reverse them. Defenders of the petrochemical industry have brushed off these findings as irrelevant, and similarly shrug at the “anecdotal evidence” offered by Aamjiwnaang residents about the foul smells or the strange ailments that are pervasive in the community.

Here’s an example of anecdotal evidence: In January, the Shell refinery had a “spill,” meaning they accidentally leaked toxic chemicals into the air. The leaked substance included hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic, potentially lethal substance that was used as a chemical weapon by the British in World War I. The gas floated over to Aamjiwnaang’s daycare center, where the staff and students noticed the air began to smell strongly of rotten eggs. Almost instantly, kids got sick and many were sent to the hospital with headaches, nausea, and skin irritation. For hours, doctors wrongly diagnosed the children as having ordinary flus and colds—if Shell had owned up to the leak that exposed them to hydrogen sulfide, they would almost certainly have gotten better faster.

Christine Rogers has three young girls; one of them was attending Aamjiwnaang’s daycare at the time of the leak, while the other two were riding in a school bus directly through the affected area. “As a parent, you do everything you can to make sure that your children are safe, and when something like that happens, you feel like you’ve lost control,” she told me. “It makes me want to break down and cry when I think about that. What if it had been a bigger spill? You think you’re prepared but really you’re not. It feels helpless.”

Christine went on to explain how she handled the effects of the leak with her eldest: “I told her she needed to tell me about any of the little symptoms that she was experiencing so we could get her to the doctor to see if she’s OK. She had crusted eyes at that point and her eyes were bloodshot for three days, so I had to make sure she didn’t have any infections.”

Parenting in chemical-ridden Aamjiwnaang comes with uniqu-e challenges. While we spoke about her daughters, Christine told me they used to think the Chemical Valley’s massive smokestacks were “cloud makers.” When it came time to tell her children the truth, she came up with a rhyme: “The more clouds in the sky, the more people die.”

Since the incident in January, Shell is believed to have been responsible for two other leaks of hydrogen sulfide—one of them sent three workers to hospital and was still being investigated as of press time. Spills are a regular part of life in Aamjiwnaang. In 2008, the roof of a large tank belonging to Imperial Oil that contained benzene, a well-known carcinogen, collapsed. The entire city of Sarnia was told to stay inside with all of their doors and windows shut.

Often, the responsibility for detecting leaks falls to community members like Ada Lockridge, an Aamjiwnaang Environmental Committee member and outspoken activist who owns an air-testing kit called a Bucket Brigade. This low-tech device consists of a plastic bucket lined with a replaceable plastic bag attached to a vacuum nozzle that protrudes out of the top of the bucket. When Ada suspects the air around her is being polluted by a leak—if it smells like gas or chemicals and tar more than usual—she sucks some of that air down through the vacuum nozzle and into the plastic bag, then sends the bag to a lab in California that for a $500 processing fee will analyze the data and send her a report within two weeks. She used this bucket to detect a hydrogen sulfide leak in April after getting a whiff of a rotten-egg odor she rated as a “ten out of ten” on her personal scale.

Ada describes discovering that leak like this: “My daughter showed up at my house to bring me coffee and a bagel and said, ‘Oh, Mom, it’s terrible out there. It smells like rotten eggs.’ So I got on the phone with the Spills Action Centre [operated by the Ontario government] and told them something was leaking… A lot of times, we’re the ones that notify the companies that they’re leaking. I went outside in my housecoat [with my Bucket Brigade] and told my youngest daughter to plug her nose and run to the school bus.”

This is just part of the heavy price Sarnians have long paid for living in a perpetual boomtown. Oil was first discovered just south of Sarnia in the mid-1800s, and since the city was ideally located—on the banks of the St. Clair River, close to Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago—the petrochemical industry set up shop here. Companies bought land from the people of Aamjiwnaang in the 1940s and 50s, back when the environmental impact of chemical industries was unknown, and in 1942 the first facility in what would become the Chemical Valley opened: a plant owned by Polymer Corporation that manufactured synthetic rubber for the war effort. During the 60s and 70s, the town prospered as the local industry exploded with growth, and the Chemical Valley became such a source of national pride that for several years the smokestack-packed skyline was featured on the back of the Canadian $10 bill.
- Please continue reading - full story on one page with video -
****

By Patrick McGuire| Vice Magazine |
 

Natasha Salgado (520)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 7:23 am
Sounds ominous. Not a place to be raising children or animals. I've only driven through here but i remember thinking how grey it was. Thanks Kit
 

Peggy A. (0)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 8:04 am
noted
 

Michael Kirkby (85)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:07 am
Kim I can't thank you enough for this. I'm not only going to look this up on Vice Magazine; I'm forwarding this to the Environment Minister Peter Kent and PM Harper. Canada may be #9 on the list of the most polluting countries but that doesn't mean we can't do better.
 

Nancy M. (201)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:17 am
I swear I have driven through Sarnia- must have had the windows closed.

 

Kit B. (276)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:43 am

I did that Michael and I hope many Canadians will follow suit. It's easy to keep the massively polluted areas separate from populace areas when there is 3.855 million sq miles and a 34.48 million (2011). So yeah, the numbers look good, the truth is Canada should take another look.
 

. (0)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 12:52 pm
the Shell refinery had a “spill,” meaning they accidentally leaked toxic chemicals into the air. The leaked substance included hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic, potentially lethal substance that was used as a chemical weapon by the British in World War I. The gas floated over to Aamjiwnaang’s daycare center, where the staff and students noticed the air began to smell strongly of rotten eggs. Almost instantly, kids got sick and many were sent to the hospital with headaches, nausea, and skin irritation. For hours, doctors wrongly diagnosed the children as having ordinary flus and colds—if Shell had owned up to the leak that exposed them to hydrogen sulfide, they would almost certainly have gotten better faster
 

Frank S. (456)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 1:31 pm
With all the greed in the world Kit, it wont be long before even Texas will smell the same way. It is so sad, how we (the human race) are destroying the entire earth.
 

John S. (304)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 2:49 pm
I searched on the internet and it looks like a tourist spot, of course that goes with the sign in article.
 

Dandelion G. (382)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 3:31 pm
As he said, these things are put in the backyards of the First Nations, the poor, and the blue collar workers. We can't have the McMansion neighborhoods smelling foul and exposed to the cancer causing chemicals. I'd like to start seeing them cut back so that less of this oil is being processed, less fumes. Maybe buy smaller cars and a smaller home.......oh, like that would happen.

They don't give a blip, just consume and pollute and make money and to heck with everyone and everything else. Even the poor guess are screwed up, why wouldn't they be.
 

Craig Pittman (45)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 4:00 pm
You could not pay me enough to live in Sarnia. Sadly many living there have no choice.
Greed, consumption and pollution rule it seems.
 

Kit B. (276)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 5:05 pm

I dunno, Frank when is the last time you were in Houston? It does smell like something that just died.
 

Jennifer C. (172)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 5:12 pm
Thanks.
 

Theodore Shayne (56)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 5:23 pm
This is one area that both sides of the border need to clean up and regulate. We have technology that will control emissions and we need to use them.
 

Inge Bjorkman (142)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 11:39 pm
This problem is not only Canada, the whole world will be affected by bad air, we get back the shit with rain elsewhere.

Love
 

Franck R. (52)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 3:43 am
Thanks
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 7:43 pm
The only response is tears of sadness that human beings would make decisions to do this to other human beings.
 

Sherri G. (113)
Friday August 30, 2013, 1:30 am
Benzene is directly linked to Leukemia. What in the hell are Canadians to do? The obvious answer is DIE! The Chemical Valley is yet another place on this earth no longer fit to live in because of Fossil fuels refineries and pollution. Chemical Valley should be shut down NOW. OMG THIS IS WHY I QUIT LOGGING ON AT MIDNIGHT. I get so damn mad I don't sleep but that does not change our need to know. TY Kit for posting. Apparently we want to make sure China gets their oil so let's build the Keystone pipeline too to ruin all the land in the US too. We better figure out something on a mega scale that will speak to these corporations to stop this greed or we are stupid and we too will die. Crap add the geese over chemical valley and the fish too are F up along with native Canadians. This is WRONG WRONG WRONG. The kids say when there are clouds in the sky people will die. Make those executives and their kids live there and watch how quickly they will do something.
 

Kit B. (276)
Friday August 30, 2013, 7:13 am

Maybe direct that anger toward the Canadian government. A thank you for the mess to Harper might make you feel better, Sherri. These companies are moving in at us from many directions, Mobil no longer wishes to pay for temporary housing for those in Arkansas, Shell wants more drilling rights in Alaska, BP is perfectly happy to make the Gulf of Mexico, devoid of all life. And, Mobil is the most profitable corporation in the history of the world.
 

Mitchell D. (131)
Friday August 30, 2013, 5:32 pm
I'm sorry to say that between Herr Harper and things like this, my opinion of Canada is changing.
 
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