Sarnia is home to more than 60 refineries and chemical plants that produce gasoline, synthetic rubbers, and other materials. 40 percent of Canada's chemical is found in this 25 km radius, which according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, has the most polluted air in Canada.
Sandwiched between massive Dow Chemical, Suncor, and Shell facilities is Aamjiwnaang, a First Nations reserve with a population of about 850. The reserve, a representative case of environmental racism, is surrounded on all sides by refineries and petroleum facilities, many of which operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its population has grown accustomed to living inside an industrial nightmare. About half of Chemical Valley's industrial facilities operate within five kilometres of the reserve, with some homes and community facilities (a basketball court, a baseball diamond, the band office, and for many years a daycare) immediately next door to refineries. 'I can see Shell from my window,' Ada Lockridge, an Aamjiwnaang resident, told me.
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.
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 coldsâif Shell had owned up to the leak that exposed them to hydrogen sulfide, they would almost certainly have gotten better faster.
Since the incident in January, Shell is believed to have been responsible for two other leaks of hydrogen sulfideâone 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.
While Sarnia at large suffers from exposure to airborne toxins, with higher rates of hospitalization than the rest of Ontario, the problems are compounded in Aamjiwnaang. The reserve is a sort of industrial sacrifice zone, continuously exposed to pollutants known to cause cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, developmental and reproductive disorders â Aamjiwnaang has, for instance, a 39% rate of miscarriage and an anomalous birth ratio of two women for every man born (as opposed to national average of approximately 1:1).
The community has mobilized, and monitors the air through bucket brigades. In 2012, the First Nation held a symposium on the issue, funded in part by Health Canada, from March 25 to 27 in Sarnia. Leading scientists and environmental groups from across North America made presentations at the event, which highlighted the First Nations concerns about the health of the Aamjiwnaang and their neighbours in an area known as Chemical Valley.