Sarnia, Ontario has just under 72,000 inhabitants, but more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries sit in a 15-mile-wide section outside town that has come to be known as “Chemical Valley.”
The smokestack-filled skyline was once a point of pride for Ontarians; a symbol of production, economy, and modernity. The chemicals produced there went into plastics, gasoline, pesticides, fertilizer and other important products. Now, the air quality is paying the price. In 2005 there was a record high of 46 smog days when school was cancelled because of the dangerously high concentration of pollutants in the air, which the World Health Organization has called “the worst in Canada.”
The most at-risk place in Sarnia is the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve. Aamjiwnaang is an Ojibwa word that denotes an important gathering place; in this case, the gathering place was located at the shores of Lake Huron. Home to some 850 Chippewa people, the reservation is surrounded by petroleum refineries. The close quarters mean that factory accidents come at a high cost. Daycares, schools, workplaces, and public parks have all seen waves of illnesses that residents blame on refinery spills.
Authorities from groups like Dow Chemical, Sunoco, and Shell have dismissed health and quality of life complaints as anecdotal and unrelated to their plants on the edge of town. Environmental groups from Sarnia continue to protest and petition the petrochemical industry in an effort to clean up the town they love. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation formed a committee dedicated to environmental health. Now, when a company wants to make changes to the layout of the land within their traditional territory, they must consult with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and get approval.
In 2011, Sarnia recorded the highest level of particulate air pollution in a Canadian city. Since then the city has made a marked improvement, dropping to 30th in the nation.
Know Before You Go
Tours of the chemical factories are available.