Windsor·Video

Aamjiwnaang First Nation members say industrial benzene emissions in Sarnia, Ont., area made them ill

A provincial environmental team is measuring air quality in an industrial area in southwestern Ontario after data indicated high levels of benzene and Aamjiwnaang First Nation urged the shutdown of a facility. Members of the Sarnia-area community describe their symptoms and how air quality fears are impacting them.

Environment Ministry says company told to 'quickly identify and reduce' emissions

Christine Rogers (left), her father Bobby, and daughter went to hospital earlier this week with symptoms of sore throats, nausea and headaches.
Aamjiwnaang First Nation member Christine Rogers, left, her father Bob and her daughter went to hospital earlier this week with symptoms of sore throats, nausea and headaches. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Christine Rogers says she won't go back to work until something is done at a neighbouring chemical plant.

The 40-year-old lives and works on Aamjiwnaang First Nation, along the shores of the St. Clair River, next to the southwestern Ontario city of Sarnia, and says she and other family members started noticing symptoms of illness earlier this week.

Rogers spoke after the First Nation's band councillors and its chief pleaded with governments to shut down INEOS Styrolution, in the wake of data indicating high levels of benzene in the air.

On Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he's "sure" the Ministry of the Environment is "already acting on it."

"They'll send folks down there to measure air quality and we'll find out," he told reporters.

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin confirmed that compliance officers have been conducting site visits at INEOS and a mobile air monitoring unit is in place.

WATCH | Where Aamjiwnaang is compared to a nearby plastic chemical producer:

Where Aamjiwnaang is compared to a nearby plastic chemical producer

1 month ago
Duration 0:33
Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ont., is located next to INEOS Styrolution. The company produces chemicals of plastic. The Indigenous community is calling on all levels of government to shut it down over concerns of high harmful chemical levels in the air.

Rogers said that recently, she "slept with my window open and I woke up with a really sore throat."

"I went to work anyway. As I was at work it just kept getting worse and worse. I just kept feeling more and more symptoms. It felt like a flu ... because I got nausea and a big headache. I just kept feeling worse and worse … like spacey."

Eventually, Rogers said, she gave in and went home from work.

"I sat outside thinking fresh air would help once I got home. I sat on my back porch for a bit and then my dad called and said he wasn't feeling well. And it's not normal for him to say that he's going to go home from work not feeling well."

WATCH | Aamjiwnaang residents speak about their symptoms:

Aamjiwnaang residents talk about symptoms as airborne chemical levels are reported

1 month ago
Duration 3:58
Christine and Bob Rogers explain the symptoms they had earlier this week, their experience in hospital, and their worries surrounding benzene causing cancer.

According to Rogers, that's around the same time she received an email from her work that their offices were closing due to "high benzene."

Rogers said she, her dad Bob and her 19-year-old daughter all went to hospital to be assessed in Sarnia for similar symptoms.

"The treatment plan was to draw blood to find out the toxicity level and then to monitor the symptoms for up to six hours after exposure, then a baseline EKG to make sure that our hearts were functioning," she said. "And then they said that if our symptoms did not get worse, we could go home. So the time passed — none of our symptoms got worse."

An Aamjiwnaang daycare playground sits next to INEOS Styrolution, in Sarnia, Ont.
An Aamjiwnaang daycare playground sits next to INEOS Styrolution in Sarnia, Ont. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

The First Nation blames the recorded pollution on INEOS Styrolution, a company that produces chemicals of plastic and sits directly beside Aamjiwnaang.

According to Clean Air Sarnia and Area preliminary data, air quality has been recorded as poor and moderate due to benzene levels multiple times in April.

Benzene is linked to a wide range of acute and long-term health effects, including cancer and blood issues.

Clean Air Sarnia and Area is a group that collects and shares information and data from the city’s air monitoring network.
Clean Air Sarnia and Area collects and shares information and data from the city’s air monitoring network. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Khanjin met with Aamjiwnaang Chief Chris Plain on Wednesday.

"The minister also spoke with representatives from INEOS and made clear our government's expectation that they quickly identify and reduce these emissions," the minister's office said in the statement on Thursday.

"When it comes to protecting health and safety, we will not hesitate to use our regulatory tools and enforcement actions to hold emitters to account."

The minister said the ministry is also working to strengthen regulations on benzene for industrial facilities, as well as financial penalties for facilities that break the rules.

A Ministry of the Environment report released in March on an air exposure review in Sarnia found benzene levels were a "concern" in some areas due to industrial emissions. 

On the federal level, in an email, Environment and Climate Change Canada directed CBC News to a statement it released in February saying it was working on draft regulations to reduce industry missions, including benzene. And that the public will be able to have its say until April 24.

In a statement, INEOS Styrolution said it upholds "stringent environmental and safety protocols" to meet regulated standards set by the ministry — with an "unwavering commitment" to safeguard the environment and residents.

The company said it's reviewing the data and concerns surrounding the high chemical levels.

A graph shows a blue line moving up and down which represents the monitor in Aamjiwnaang First Nation. And underneath that graph are areas of yellow and orange, which relate to moderate and poor air quality readings.
This screenshot from the Clean Air Sarnia and Area shows that since the beginning of April, monitor readings in Aamjiwnaang First Nation (blue line) have reported poor and moderate air quality readings. The yellow colour refers to a moderate reading, which means that one or more pollutant concentrations are approaching, but still below, the Ambient Air Quality Criteria. The orange colour refers to a poor reading, which means one or more pollutant is above the Ambient Air Quality Criteria. This data is 'unverified,' according to the website, and can include errors. (Clean Air Sarnia and Area)

Rogers and her dad work directly across from Styrolution.

"The only thing separating us is the road. We're right there."

She said she's unsure about next steps, but does know she won't go back to work if things at the facility remain status quo.

"I work in a portable and it draws in air for my heating source, and it blows directly on my back all day long.

"I don't know what we're going to do about that situation, but I'm not [returning]."

'We know the air is stinky'

Darren Henry's granddaughter works at the daycare beside Styrolution.

The Aamjiwnaang councillor said the air quality has become a conversation piece for children at the daycare who are as young as three years old because they can't go outside.

"We know the air is stinky and is going to hurt us," Henry said they're telling other children and daycare staff.

Henry said his community's position regarding the facility remains firm. Until the issue is fixed, they want it closed, he said.

Darren Henry is an Aamjiwnaang First Nation band councillor.
Darren Henry is an Aamjiwnaang First Nation band councillor. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"We haven't seen any action or compliance.

"Personally, in my mind, they've assaulted every person in this community."

After meeting with government and health-related agencies, Henry said, he will "remain hopeful" in the outcome.

"I know within our organization we're starting to experience trust issues with the government."

'First Nations are watching your response'

An Indigenous NDP MPP from northern Ontario supports the push by the Aamjiwnaang community to shut down the facility.

"It is unacceptable," Sol Mamakwa, a member of Kingfisher Lake First Nation, said in a statement to CBC News.

"We're talking about human beings here. If this were happening elsewhere, it would be declared a state of emergency."

A close-up of a man sitting at a table outside,
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario, says 'continued neglect' of the health and safety of Indigenous people will not be tolerated. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Mamakwa said the "continued neglect" of the health and safety of Indigenous people will not be tolerated.

"This is a message to all levels of government; First Nations are watching your response. The government's failure to act will only allow these companies to further jeopardize our future for quick profits."

WATCH | Meet long-time southwestern Ontario environmental activist Ada Lockridge:

Meet long-time southwestern Ontario environmental activist Ada Lockridge

1 month ago
Duration 1:44
Aamjiwnaang First Nation's Ada Lockridge has decades of experience protesting developments she believes pollute the air in her community. Here's how a sacred gift motivates her to keep pushing for change.

"I think it's bigger than we think," said Ada Lockridge, a longtime Aamjiwnaang environmental activist.

One of CASA's air monitoring stations is named after her.

Lockridge hopes having the ear of the governments and full community support will result in action.

"We've asked, you know, so many people, we've done so many studies," she said. 

"I'm usually a fighter-type person, but I've been trying to use my words. And you can only do that for so long."

Ada Lockridge is a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia, Ont. She is a long-time environmental activist on behalf of the community.
Ada Lockridge is a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and a longtime environmental activist on behalf of the community. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Becken

Journalist

Bob Becken is with CBC's digital team. Previously, he was an executive producer with CBC Windsor, and held broadcast and digital news director duties with Bell Media and Blackburn Media. You can reach him at bob.becken@cbc.ca.

With files from Chris Ensing, Jennifer La Grassa