OPINION: Ministry has failed all Sarnians

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia’s south end is sandwiched between two oil refineries, Suncor Energy in the foreground, and Shell Canada at top. Glenn Ogilvie

George Mathewson

When Gord Miller slammed the environment ministry for inaction on chemical exposure at Aamjiwnaang last week he stated what Sarnians know is true but hate to admit  – our First Nations residents are treated like second-class citizens.

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner called the Environment Ministry’s failure to adequately respond to the impact of spills and air pollution on the reserve a failure of historic proportions. And he’s right.

Aamjiwnaang is within city limits and is a part of Sarnia, and anyone who has spent time there knows about the industrial omnipresence. You can hear the oil refineries of Suncor and Shell rumbling away, and sometimes smell and even taste them in the air.

Geography is part of the problem. As Miller noted, today’s land use rules would never permit such a concentration of heavy industry so close to a residential community. Likewise, some south Sarnia homes were built too close to Imperial Oil.

But that’s no excuse for inaction. In fact, the Chemical Valley’s unfortunate nearness is all the more reason for the ministry to be vigilant and aggressive.

When former Premier Mike Harris uncapped the maximum penalties on environmental offenders in the 1990s few took seriously his boast of “getting tough on polluters.”

The Common Sense Revolution, after all, had already hamstrung the Environment Ministry by slashing its budget 45 per cent in three years, while simultaneously loosening regulations and discharge limits for industries.

But the courts took note. Judges since then have slapped a succession of local companies with escalating fines and surcharges for contaminating our air and water.

The ministry decided not to lay charges in an April 26 incident at Shell involving hydrogen sulphide but is still investigating a Jan. 11, 2013 “sour water” leak.

Roads were closed and residents told to stay inside and close doors and windows. Thirty-three people at Aamjiwnaang, many of them children at the day-care centre, suffered headaches, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.

We will only know if this was a violation of the Environmental Protection Act if the ministry proceeds with charges.

Allegations that warning sirens failed to sound for an hour after the advisory was issued were also never resolved.

In short, the Ontario Environment Ministry has failed Aamjiwnaang, miserably, and so it has failed all Sarnians.

Miller himself said it best:

“Such a situation would be intolerable for any community, but given the history of our treatment of First Nations, this case is truly shameful.”