What's Happening In The Skies Over This Canadian Town Is Creeping The Kids Right Out

Chemical Valley is where 40% of Canada's chemical industry is located. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation reservation shares a fence line with Chemical Valley. They and other locals are reporting an alarming number of illnesses. So you can probably forgive the couple of curse words used in the doc.

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This is the First Nations of Aamjiwnaang burial grounds. These people have been here for hundreds of years and about 70 years ago they got some great new neighbors. This is the Chemical Valley. The first thing you notice when you visit Sarnia, Ontario is the smell. Imagine a mixture of gasoline, melting asphalt, and a trace of rotten egg smacking you in the face and crawling up your nose every time you breathe. It's a cocktail that made me unpleasantly high and dizzy. That smell is the Chemical Valley where 40% of Canada's petrochemical industry is located in a 25 kilometer-squared area. The Chemical Valley is responsible for the production of gasoline, plastics, pesticides, fertilizers, cosmetics, and a whole bunch of other chemicals that our society relies on. It's estimated that in 2013 alone, the Canadian petrochemical industry will generate $24 billion in sales. Two years ago, thanks to the 60 petrochemical plants and oil refineries that operate in the Chemical Valley 24/7, the World Health Organization gave Sarnia the title of the worst air in all of Canada. To make matters worse, a First Nation's reserve called Aamjiwnaang, where just under a thousand people live, shares a fence line with the Chemical Valley. This is a serious health concern for the people of Aamjiwnaang as their community has consistently claimed to have higher cancer and miscarriage rates than the national average and yet the government has not launched a proper health study to investigate their allegations.

First Nations in Sarnia, Ontario . . .

Tensions between the First Nations community of Canada, the government, and the petrochemical industry have been running high for a very long time. Regular participation in highway blockage and protests are the norm for many First Nations communities in Canada who are pushing back against environmental damage to their native land.

You're fucking cowards!

What happened is that Anthony W. George was killed. His relatives insist he was a peaceful man.

One of the major issues of the residents of Aamjiwnaang need to deal with are chemical leaks from the plants themselves. Oftentimes, these leaks go unreported and in the first half of 2013 alone, there were three spills of hydrogen sulfide. One of them sent several small children from Aamjiwnaang's day care to the hospital. Once we heard about Aamjiwnaang's struggle, we knew we had to go visit the Chemical Valley ourselves to try and get a better sense of how the relationship between the First Nations and the petrochemical industry is being handled, what's been done to ensure the safety of the people of Aamjiwnaang, and what the future of the Chemical Valley holds. We visited Sarnia while a high-profile energy conference was being held. Political leaders and energy executives had converged on the city to discuss how more money could be squeezed out of Canada's most valuable resource, our oil. As you might imagine, the people of Aamjiwnaang were not happy to hear that more industry will be coming their way.

Clean water, clean air, healthy families!

No more chemicals in the valley!

No more chemicals in the valley!

We want clean air, healthy families!

While the protesters demonstrated outside of the conference, the energy industry discussed a plan to build new oil pipelines all across Canada. In response, Vanessa Gray, a 20-year-old activist from Aamjiwnaang was there to cause a disruption.

I have the right to clean air and fresh water. If you guys feel that money is more important than having water, then there's something really fucked up here. Thank you.

Clean air and healthy families!

Clean water, clean air!

Health families!

No more chemicals in the valley!

When you're on stage, there were probably about six different people that came out to you who tried to get you off stage. You didn't say a word to any of them. Is that a difficult thing to do, just sort of keeping a stone face?

Yeah. I mean, this lady came out to me and said that I was taking her right away to enjoy the conference in peace.

How did you feel about that?

I feel that she's taking my right away to breathe air and drink water.

After chatting with Vanessa outside of the energy conference, we figured we should go meet up with her in a less stressful setting. That didn't exactly happen. She brought us to a site in the valley right by Aamjiwnaang called the Blue Water Plaque. It commemorates a middle class white community who was evacuated from the area because of the unsafe living conditions that Aamjiwnaang's residents still live with. You're getting involved in these very important big issues at a really young age. What was it that first sort of drove you to try and make a difference?

I've just been affected by cancer in my family and friends and loved ones so much. And I would like to see Chemical Valley exposed more than it is now. I'd like some more health studies to be done. People all over can see how fucked up the situation is because it's something that a lot of people don't understand that they don' see every day.

We went over to the reserve's well-kept baseball diamond that sits directly across from a massive refinery to speak with Christine Rogers. Christine is a mother of three daughters who are affected by Shell's hydrogen sulfide leak in January of 2013. A leak that was discovered by the staff of Aamjiwnaang's day care center and the children they were caring for after they all noticed a rotten egg smell in the air. Several children were sent to hospital as a result. And because Shell did not properly alert the community, the kids were wrongfully diagnosed for having colds or flus, when really they were suffering from hydrogen sulfide exposure.

You feel like a failure. As a parent, you do everything you can to protect your children. You do everything that you can to make sure that your children are safe. And when something like that happens, it's beyond your control and you feel like you've lost control. What if it had been a bigger spill? You think you're prepared, but really you're not. Honestly, it feels helpless. She had gotten the crusted eyes at that time and her eyes were bloodshot for three days and I had to take her to the doctor and make sure there were no infections.

And how do you think these industries need to step up and help this from not happening?

You want to operate here, then you should have top of the line technology. You should be putting safety above your dollars. "It's going to cost too much, it's going to cost too much," that's what you hear all the time and I don't care. I don't care how much you cost. That's my child's safety. They would do it if their kids lived right here. There's a funny saying that my kids, they came up with, you see the smoke coming out over there?


Yeah, they used to think that those were cloud makers. I don't know. I tell her, "No, no, that's not a cloud. That's pollution. That's bad stuff that we're breathing in." So they came up with their own saying, "The more clouds in the sky, the more people will die." As a parent, that is heartbreaking, that my kids think about where they live like that.

I'm here outside of the Shell Oil Refinery, which is one of the largest refineries in the Chemical Valley. The air fucking smells like gas and this plant alone has been responsible for three different leaks of hydrogen sulfide in the past five months since the beginning of 2013. And if you're not already familiar with hydrogen sulfide, it was actually used as a chemical weapon by the British in World War I. So you know it's really good for you. When oil was first discovered near Sarnia in the mid-1800s, mass industrialization was not far away. To support the war effort in the early 1940s, Sarnia became a major center for the petrochemical industry. And from there, business began to boom. Sarnia's proximity to the United States quickly made it an exporting hotspot for Canadian petrochemicals. And to meet the demand, companies were quick to buy up land from the people of Aamjiwnaang back when the concept of environmental impact didn't really exist. Then, during the '60s and '70s, Sarnia prospered as the industry exploded with business. All of a sudden, the Chemical Valley was being heralded as a wonderfully exciting development. Because of this, no one should be under any illusion when it comes to the existence of the Chemical Valley. We asked for it. The operation of our society relies on petrochemicals. This is an issue that all of us are responsible for. I went to speak with Mayor Mike Bradley who has been writing Sarnia for over 25 years to discuss the history of the Chemical Valley, what can be done to improve its emissions, and the industries' impact on the people of Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia at large.

It doesn't matter where you go in North America, you will find toxins and other things. The question always in this community and anyone that has an industrial complex is what does the cluster do? Health Canada came to the community and said we're willing to do this health study and it's going to cost millions and then within a very short period of time, they removed themselves from the process. And so that's been the issue of how can you fund it because it is not inexpensive process, to make it credible. I don't believe the study should have any money from the industry, and yet it is going to be funded in part by industry.

What do you think the valid reasons, if any, are for Aamjiwnaang to mistrust the government or industry?

The first oil company came here over a hundred years ago. What really accelerated the industry was they needed to be on the water during the Second World War. So the big plant came here located that made rubber. Then all the other plants grew around it. Well the natural place to go to was where Aamjiwnaang reserve was. So over the years, it's been eroded by industry and I understand by the city and others just taking it away. History hasn't been fair to the Aamjiwnaang. There's no question of that. But what I've been trying to do is make sure that this generation's life will be better by doing what we can to make sure that that relationship is more stable than it's been in the past. You would not do this today. You would not locate industry close to a city. You would not locate industry on reserve lands in the way it was done 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago.

We heard a lot about a scientist named Jim Brophy who used to work very closely with Aamjiwnaang and the workplace victims of Chemical Valley who developed serious health conditions from their jobs in the plants. Jim has since been chased out of Sarnia and now lives in Windsor. We went to visit Jim to discuss with the Canadian government and the petrochemical industry need to do to protect the people of Aamjiwnaang and the blue collar workforce of the Chemical Valley itself. All right, I'm here with Dr. Jim Brophy here in Windsor and across the river there, we've got a three-storey tall, one city block long pile of petroleum coke. Can you maybe explain what that is?

That's the end stage of refinery process. And in that particular case, that's bitumen, tar sands crude.

Yes. So that's coming out from Alberta.

And it's going to a large refinery, Marathon refinery, in Southwest Detroit. Southwest Detroit and Sarnia Aamjiwnaang are classic examples of environmental reasons of the whole environmental justice movement is, was in response to these types of egregious, really criminal situations where poor communities find their neighbors are these, you know, large industrial complexes and there's little or no protection from the kinds of exposures that these people get. So let's remember, who's the highest populations at risk? Its First Nations communities on the fence line, its blue collar industrial workers. It's the poor working class and poor people who live in Sarnia, not in the CEOs. And it's the same in Southwest Detroit, right across Marathon. It's the poorest people in the city.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Thanks to VICE for part one of the documentary "Canada's Toxic Chemical Valley." If you want to learn more, check out part two here. Thumbnail image by Jamie McCaffrey, used under Creative Commons license.

Jul 10, 2014

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