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Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants

Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants
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A government whistleblower claims the province’s environment ministry has for years failed to properly protect the Aamjiwnaang First Nation — whose ancestral land near Sarnia is surrounded by petroleum refineries and chemical plants — from potentially dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide air emissions due to “systemic discrimination” that includes yielding to “secretive” industry lobbying to relax compliance standards.

Scott Grant, 56, is a senior combustion and air pollution engineer at the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. He alleges that top-level ministry managers have withheld technical and scientific information about sulphur dioxide impacts and caved to industry interests while failing to properly consult Aamjiwnaang First Nation representatives — all of which Grant says puts residents at “unreasonable” health and safety risks in an area known as “Chemical Valley.”

Grant’s claims are contained in material supporting his Ontario Labour Relations Board grievance application filed in August against environment deputy minister Serge Imbrogno.

The 30-year ministry employee claims Imbrogno is responsible for workplace reprisals he experienced after confidentially disclosing discrimination concerns to Imbrogno in January. The ministry rejects both Grant’s allegations of systemic discrimination and his claims of workplace reprisals.

The grievance arbitration, submitted under the Public Service of Ontario Act, is scheduled for Thursday.

Imbrogno, in Aamjiwnaang on Monday for a meeting the ministry requested with Chief Chris Plain, told the Star — who was also there — he won’t comment on internal human resources matters.

Grant began working directly with the Aamjiwnaang community in 2007 as part of his ministry duties to examine air quality. Today, he asserts residents are still not safe.

“I have come to the conclusion that this community has been placed at unreasonable risk of harm as a result of air pollution from nearby petroleum refineries and chemical plants,” he wrote in his grievance documents, referring to the industry’s use of acid gas flaring.

Petroleum refineries use acid gas flaring as a way to burn off excess sulphur from crude oil if that excess can’t be safely managed. Sulphur is removed from crude for products like gasoline and diesel fuels.

In a summary of his grievance filed with the labour board, Grant wrote “dangerous acid gas flaring practices” that discharge sulphur dioxide into the air expose “sensitive individuals” such as the young, elderly or asthmatics to a range of potential respiratory troubles.

In Ontario, currently there is no limit to how many times a plant can flare, however, under the new regulation, facilities may be fined for exceeding within a 24-hour period sulphur dioxide emission amounts set by the ministry.

In that Feb. 11 letter to Grant, Imbrogno defended the new acid gas flaring regulation as effective. Imbrogno wrote “… the ministry’s view is that the regulation will not increase the risk of harm to the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nation communities.”

The deputy minister also stated in the letter that petroleum industry experts were closely involved with the ministry in crafting the proposed 530/18 regulation and that First Nations’ concerns were “considered in finalizing the regulation.”

“More detailed discussions with representatives from petroleum refineries occurred to ensure the proposed legislation was technically sound,” wrote Imbrogno, who also refuted Grant’s allegations of systemic discrimination. “In specific regard to O. Reg. 530/18,” he wrote in the letter, “I can assure you its development was in no way motivated by discriminatory views against Indigenous communities.”

Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler said in an email to the Star that: “The ministry takes concerns about air quality in Sarnia and across Ontario very seriously and has strong protections in place to regulate air contaminants released by various sources, including industrial and commercial facilities.” Wheeler also stated the ministry “has worked closely for several years with both the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nations communities to enhance their engagement in air monitoring and air quality in the Sarnia area.”

Chief Plain said his community has been proactive in developing relationships with the ministry and the petroleum industry and together, environmental protection gains have been made.

However, Plain and his environmental co-ordinater, Sharilyn Johnston — a former environment ministry enforcement officer — said they are often frustrated by government foot-dragging on requests like enforcement of existing air quality standards, sharing air monitoring data, getting replies to correspondence and conducting sincere nation-to-nation consultations according to Aamjiwnaang’s established protocols.

“Listening seems to be the easy part,” Plain said.

“They listen but there’s no willingness to express any kind of movement on these types of requests.”

Johnston, who calls Grant a “hero” and a “champion” of the Aamjiwnaang, said her community being excluded from developing the flaring regulation was “a big failure” by the environment ministry.

Johnston told the Star she had no idea the regulation was being created until she got a phone call from a ministry official in December of 2018. She said she was told the proposal was done, that it was being posted that same day and did she have any concerns before it became official?

“We didn’t really have any time to look at it,” she said, recalling the band office was closed for two weeks at the time.

“We called (back) and said ‘Here are our concerns,’ but that was way too late to ever be involved in the process,” Johnston continued.

“So when you talk about engagement and consultation and duty, that was a failure. And a big failure.”

Stephanie Montreuil, spokesperson for the Canadian Fuels Association, said in an email to the Star that the industry organization and its members “are proud of our relationship with Aamjiwnaang First Nation.”

“The community has been a strong advocate for improved air quality in the area as we work together toward increasingly improved industry environmental performance,” Montreuil said.

This Indigenous community of 2,500 trapped within one of Canada’s most polluted places has long been studied and assessed by environmental groups and government agencies, including provincial Environment commissioners and the United Nations.

Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, toured parts of Canada this summer, including the Sarnia area.

He described Aamjiwnaang’s situation as “deeply unsettling,” with more than 60 industrial facilities on three sides of the community “that create the physiological and mental stress among community members regarding the risk of impending explosions or other disasters, as well as a wide variety of health impacts from unquestionably poisonous chronic exposures.”

Tuncak also wrote: “It is acknowledged that existing regulations do not protect the health of Aamjiwnaang.”

Toronto lawyer David Donnelly represents Grant in his grievance application. He said Grant’s grievance “confirms that senior bureaucrats have consistently failed to protect this community by not allowing scientists and engineers to do their job to protect human health and the environment.”
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