Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Canada's Chemical Valley

This a copy of a Great Lakes Radio Consortium transcript of Rick Pluta's report on the chemical industry in Ontario. This is important. The toxins that flow into the St. Clair River and Lake Huron eventually make their way into the entire Great Lakes ecosystem and affect all of our drinking water.

"North of Detroit, just across the border from Michigan is Canada's Chemical Valley. It's a complex of dozens of petro-chemical factories that employ thousands of people near Sarnia, Ontario. Chemical Valley is the center of the economy here, but it also has a major environmental effect on the Great Lakes. That's because Chemical Valley sits on the Saint Clair River, one of the rivers that connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie. What happens on the Saint Clair River affects thousands of people who downstream from the plants. Chemical spills from Sarnia have polluted the shorelines of both countries...

Jim Brophy is the director of a health clinic for people who work in the sprawling complex of factories on the Canadian side of the Saint Clair River. Brophy says he's seen people suffering and lives shortened by cancer, respiratory failure, and neurological disorders. "It's an unbelievable tragedy because these diseases are all completely preventable, but arose both because of government and industry negligence over the course of 30 or 40 years, or even longer." Brophy says many of those health problems are also being exported downstream to other communities.

The Aamjiwnaang tribe makes its home right next to the Chemical Valley complex. A recent study of Aamjiwnaang birth records found that, in the last decade, instead of births being about half girls and half boys, only one-third of the babies born on the reservation were boys. Shifts in reproduction patterns often serve as a signal of an environmental imbalance. Jim Brophy says that suggests the impact of Sarnia's chemical industry on the environment and people deserves more attention.

"We cannot put a particular exposure from a particular place and link that at this point, but what we are putting together are pieces of a puzzle, and I think that's becoming a major concern not just for our community and not just for the American community on the other side of the river, but I think for people all along the Great Lakes."

Environmental regulators agree. The province of Ontario recently ordered 11 facilities to clean up their operations so there are fewer spills and emissions. Although the provincial government has little power to enforce those orders, officials say it's a step in the right direction.

Dennis Schornack is the U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission. The IJC looks to resolve disputes and solve problems in the Great Lakes international waters. He says that, since World War II, Chemical Valley has changed the character of the Saint Clair River. "We really have to watch this for drinking water - that's the main thing. Canada does not draw its drinking water from the river and the U.S. does."

So communities on the U.S. side have to deal with chemical spills and other pollution in their drinking water, but they have no control over the polluters on the other side of the border.

Peter Cobb is a plant manager who sits on the board of the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association. That's a consortium of Sarnia petro-chemical operations. He says the problem is spills into the Saint Clair River peaked in the 1980s, when there were roughly 100 spills a year. He says now that's down to five to 10 spills a year. "We have made significant progress. Having said that, our target remains zero spills per year, and industry is well aware that our current performance does not meet our own target as well as the expectations of the public." Cobb also acknowledges there have been some major setbacks in the last couple of years. Some big spills have forced downstream communities to once again stop taking their drinking water from the Saint Clair River. Cobb says Chemical Valley will try to do better. "

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