Lunch in Sarnia – Would you like cancer with that?


SARNIA, Ontario, seen from the westbound lanes of Highway 402, ten kilometers away on a bleak March day: huge, fulminating plumes rising high into the sky from tall, thin towers of smoke stacks, merging ominously with a few clouds high on the horizon, plainly visible even from this distance. But as soon as you approach the outskirts, where the residential and commercial parts of the city have been built up north of the refining fields, the view of the industrial area is obscured. So when you turn off the highway and make your way south for a while through the residential streets, and finally come upon the totality of it all – officially, the “Sarnia-Lambton Petrochemical and Refining Complex, St. Clair County” , but everyone here calls it Chemical Valley – the scale of it, the fumes, the smells, the jungle of metal and wires, all seem overwhelming; and especially in March where there is no grass or foliage to soften the harshness.

During the course of this research project, my husband, David Fenton, and I have cut across the city several times on the 402,  on our way to or back from Michigan, but this is our first trip south into the refining fields as such. We apporach them driving down Vidal Avenue which takes us past the vast ESSO facility and deep into the complex. As far  as the eye can see the refining plants extend, with their banded, illuminated cracking towers emitting foul grey and yellow plumes; with their flares burning against the sky; with their countless hulking holding tanks, the drums of many painted white and looking sound, but others marred by rivers of rust; and others still, just looming husks, holes corroded into their sides, empty and dangerous. Settling ponds – grey and black on this gloomy day – spread like a deadly checkerboard through the fields.

Sarnia - Esso Complex

Just one part of the vast Esso complex in Chemical Valley travelling south on Vidal, on a March day. North of this bridge is a residential neighborhood in Sarnia. Farther south past more refineries is the Aamjiwinaang First Nation Reserve.  Photo Credit: David Fenton

All this massive superstructure is interconnected by roadways and railway lines and endless electrical wires as it spreads down along the eastern bank of the St. Clair River; but also by an equally massive – if invisible to us – substructure underground, in pipelines and switches and rail lines that connect the different facilities to each other and cross the St. Clair River to deliver feedstocks to natural gas and plastics plants on the Michigan side and points west and south. So, to really understand what is happening here, double the built environment you see.

In a long phone conversation preparatory to our trip, Aamjiwinaang environmental justice activist Ada Lockridge who we are now on our way to see, has already told us how much the legal emissions and leaks alike – more than a hundred accidental leaks a year, she said – contaminate the atmosphere, land and water despite official regulations to control pollution and industry disclaimers of malfeasance. So all this heroic hardware does not reassure. Yes, Chemical Valley is a truly awesome testament to man’s artifice and exploitation of nature, and we remark on that, imagining that it must make chemical engineers and CEOs swell with pride. But to mere mortals, meaning to the rest of us, Chemical Valley looks like something apocalyptic, infernal and perilous. In the dreariness of a sunless afternoon, we fall silent as we drive toward the reserve. We fight the feeling that the human race is doomed.

Sarnia - Ada and Ron

Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain, co-plaintiffs in suite against Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment on constitutional right to clean air for all    Photo Credit: Ecojustice Canada

DAVID and I made six research trips in 2014 to the region that falls between Flint, Michigan and London Ontario, to the North, and Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chatham, Ontario to the south, a region bifurcated by the U.S.-Canada border, which runs down the channel of the watercourse that comprises the St. Clair River (into which Lake Huron drains), the basswood-leaf shaped Lake St. Clair (into which the St. Clair River drains), and the Detroit River (which ends in Lake Erie). At the northern head of the St. Clair River, the city of Sarnia sits on the Canadian shore, facing the city of Port Huron on the American side. Nearly at the bottom of the watercourse, Windsor, Ontario and Detroit regard one another across the river for which the Motor City is named.

David and I were in the middle of a quest to understand more about the social, economic and political realities of today’s chemical regime more generally; and, more specifically, to know more about this heavily industrialized region, where David grew up, in which the refining of chemicals from raw feed stocks, and manufacturing enterprises working with the direct by-products of refining are so central to the economy. On this trip, we were devoting our day to Sarnia itself, a small city of 80,000 souls that – astoundingly – produces fully 43 per cent of Canada’s chemicals. Given its placement in a vast transport infrastructure at the very heart of the North American continent, it is a refining and transportation hub of extraordinary strategic importance far beyond Ontario, or even Canada, a critical place for about seventy companies who have facilities there.

Sarnia - Pipelines

The black dot is Sarnia – strategically located in North America

On a prior visit to Windsor, Ontario, we had spent several hours speaking with two pioneering researcher-activists, Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, key players in environmental justice activism in South West Ontario, occupational health experts and eventually documenters of the history and then-current health situation in the city of Sarnia. Jim, who founded and for some years directed the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), and Margaret, who headed research there, told us that from the late 1990s to 2008, with union and local health activists, they had started several projects linked to major health problems in the area. One was the emerging scandal of staggering asbestos contamination in an old plant called the Holmes Foundry and even an adjacent park – an effort that eventually revealed, in Jim’s words, probably one of the largest occupational health disasters in the history of the country. The rates of mesothelioma and lung cancers especially, but also other cancers (for example, pancreatic), that they unearthed, did, indeed, make it into the record books.

They had also worked to assist the people of the Aamjiwnaang reserve to document and organize to change the horrendous impacts their community had been feeling for decades from the refineries, farther to the south and surrounded by the chemical plants.

Sarnia - Jim and Margaret

Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith receiving an award for their work

 on breast cancer among automotive plastics workers

Jim and Margaret told us a long a story with many fraught chapters – fraught because of the high stakes in chemical riches for the industry, in jobs for workers and the incredible pressures brought to bear on them and their allies to minimize the health problems they so quickly discovered. The story included finding out that the Ontario government had known about many of these problems for at least fifteen years, and had done nothing to address them – a fact that has just come out publicly in the fall 2017 – so add another 15 years of Government knowledge and inaction to the first for a total of 30 years – in features by the Toronto Star and Global News.  Jim and Margaret’s story also included historical chapters, notably one on sit-down strikes that had taken place in the 1930s by chemical workers who were mainly Asian, Eastern European and Italian – strikes that were so violently and viciously repressed and left scars so deep that in the late 1990s, the children and grandchildren of these workers, employed in the chemical complex, were afraid that fighting their working conditions would provoke deportation.

The final chapter of Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith’s time in Sarnia was just as fraught as their initial one: their work had become so politicized that they felt eventually they had to leave. They returned to Windsor, where both taught courses at the university and continued their research into health problems, eventually into breakthrough work in breast cancer, in automotive plastics plants and, more recently in violence in health care.

But Margaret told us she felt that when they first arrived in the chemical city, it was into a culture of great fear and disempowerment; and when they left this was shifting, even as the fear of job loss to low-wage jurisdictions was worse than ever. This shift was their reward. What they certainly affirmed, in spades, and multiple times, was that there is no conversation that takes place about the adverse health impact of chemicals in Sarnia that does not contain constant invocations of many types of illness, and, most deadly of all, of cancer – then, and to this day.


Sarnia - Aamjiwinaang

The Aamjiwinaang First Nations reservation is the treed zone between refinery fields (photo captured from Google Earth)

 CUTOUT = “According to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory and the US Toxic Release Inventory, the facilities located near the reserve together produce 134,000 tons of substances, air contaminants, toxic pollutants, and greenhouse gases. And with there being an average of 100 leaks a year, it is troubling to think about the effects on the environment and the people who live there.”

Off the beaten path a couple of miles south of Sarnia’s city center, along the river, is the Aamjiwnaang reserve, a fence line community and a sacrifice zone of astounding proximity to the refineries. We learned that this was a place where, on days that leaks from the adjacent facilities occur, it was not uncommon to see employees wearing hazmat suits, complete with helmets, while on the other side of a chain link fence the children of the reserve would be playing outdoors in everyday clothing. The reservation is a sacrifice zone to beat all sacrifice zones. And it makes you wonder what kind of Faustian bargain has been struck for the “miracles” of modern chemistry.

Just how bad does it get on the reserve? Don’t be fooled by all that blue and green in the photo above, taken on a lovely summer day. Instead, visit the organization Great Lakes Environmental Justice, which has a tremendously informative website with a dedicated section on Sarnia and Aamjiwnanng, and read about the area for yourself. Of note:

According to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory and the US Toxic Release Inventory, the facilities located near the reserve together produce 134,000 tons of substances, air contaminants, toxic pollutants, and greenhouse gases. And with there being an average of 100 leaks a year, it is troubling to think about the effects on the environment and the people who live there.

Is it necessary to add that the people of the reserve cannot rely on their traditional food sources, including, first of all, fish from the St. Clair?

The fish tested for mercury pollution in the Aamjiwnaang area were found to have 33 times the safe eating level of mercury and with mercury concentrating as it moves up the food chain, one can only wonder how the poison increases. Dow is also responsible for a 5-10 thousand gallon spill of perchloroethylene (which is a carcinogenic dioxin) in 1985.

Twelve years ago, the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittlestaedt wrote an article about the reserve, called “Where the Boys Aren’t.” He noted extremely troubling trends, above all that there were two girls being born to every boy, presumably because of the endocrine disrupting chemicals that surrounded the reserve. And – subsequently confirmed over and over – that rates of autism and various learning disorders, asthma and other forms of ill health, not just cancer, are features of life there – no surprise, the term “fence line” is literal in Aamjiwnaang, on three close sides. You can see how close the residential streets of this little suburb-like community are to the plants. Imagine what it is like to  live there.

Sarnia - House close to plants

How close is Aamjwinaang to the refineries? This close. Photo/Ecojustice and Garth Lenz

This frightening proximity was immediately apparent to us as we turned in off the main road to find Ada Lockridge’s home. Ada was one of the women activists Mittlestaedt had interviewed in 2004, and she had gone on to become a fighter for environmental justice for her community in the following years, and at that time was a co-plaintiff with Ron Plain in a charter challenge for the right to clean air, based on Section 7 – the right to security of the person, and Section 15 – the right to be free from discrimination. Eco-justice Canada, a environmental legal defense fund – was acting as counsel then (and continues now.)

The toxicity of the reserve, and the consequences to its people had by then become so well-known that scientists, physicians, environmentalists, filmmakers and social justice campaigners from all over the world had come and produced work about it. In addition to cancers and respiratory diseases, the stark and terrifying consequences of bombardment with endocrine disrupting chemicals in a birth ratio of two girls to every boy had alarmed and resonated with people from far and wide.

The experiences that Ada shared with us about trying to organize to improve conditions of life next to the refineries were moving and compelling, and deserve a story of their own. You will find them below this story [jump to next section].  But suffice it here to say that Ada confirmed that Sarnia was not exactly a hot bed of resistance, despite the terrible health issues it struggles with. There are several compelling reasons for this including the belief – which we found in so many working class areas in the region, as well – that having a job entails getting sick sooner or later, including with terminal cancer.

This attitude is not simply an automatic result of working in tough industries. Much more, it’s the result of a long process of wearing down of workers who have tried to fight back and lost; and, since Free Trade and NAFTA, of the added threat of job loss and plant relocation to lower wage jurisdictions, options that unions are almost powerless to fight, and unorganized workers even more so. People have to put food on the table. So calls to fight back become painfully divisive, with people who want to keep jobs – or those who benefit from the local chemical economy in other ways – at any cost at times seeing those who fight for better health as their enemies. Families have been split along gender lines, with men wanting to keep their employment no matter what, and women wanting to protect the health of their husbands and children. Communities have been split along race and class lines as well.

Indeed, as far as institutional racism goes, Aamjiwnaang belongs in the record books too, right at the top: In the 1950s, Bluewater Village, a white community of nearly 2,300 non-native residents, next door to the reserve, was actually disassembled due to the acknowledged danger of the encroaching refineries, and all its people transplanted to safer parts of the region, while the First Nations people we left in situ. It’s a jaw-dropping story. Nor has the Ontario government been willing, since the last wave of activism began, to help Aamjiwnaang residents relocate themselves.

Leaving Ada’s house and the reserve, late in the afternoon we decided to see a bit more or residential Sarnia, then get a quick meal before we hit the highway. And it turned out that our last encounter of that day was not a planned conversation with experts or activists. Rather it was a chance conversation with a sweet young waitress and it produced a sad and moving coda to our other experiences in and about Chemical Valley.  

Let me set the scene.

The Lunchtime Encounter

Having bid Ada good-bye, we made our way out of Aamjiwinaang and headed back toward Highway 402, threading north from the reserve, back through the refinery fields directly into the city. We found ourselves in the older streets of Sarnia, lined in pre World War II clapboard workers houses in white, pale blue, yellow and just plain grey. We continued northward through an area of well-kept small brick bungalows, fifties and sixties vintage, maybe eleven hundred feet in size, on smaller lots – you could tell from their proliferation when the local economy had really taken off and where the well-paid post-war plant employees had settled. We veered westward briefly, to the riverfront and the small downtown, looking gritty and dead late that Sunday afternoon; and finally, we made our way northeast, through some streets of two-storey brick homes, middling middle class, sitting on their sooty, snow-covered lawns with some lights just starting to come on through the windows.

London Road, just below the highway, was a typical Ontario thoroughfare – a couple of Tim Horton’s, a familiar Loblaw’s and Shoppers Drug Mart in adjacent strip malls, and the usual line-up of fast-food outlets, from which we selected East Side Mario’s. As we parked, we were talking about how this city – the most important site, by far, in a $21 billion Ontario chemical industry – how this place was so out of sight and so out of mind for the rest of the province, jammed against the water down at the bottom of Lake Huron. Thousands of people cut through it every day on the 402, headed for the Blue Water Bridge and the U.S.A., and thousands came back; but few stopped. Certainly people in Toronto never gave Sarnia a second thought, one way or the other.

Of course, a fundamental fact of life in the whole region, where chemicals are made, and made into consumer goods, where a vast, multi-sited nexus of interdependent and interconnected enterprises spreads throughout both urban and agricultural tracts, is that if you are working class, or a person of colour, you are likely to be at serious risk from toxic chemicals. The risk can be current and active – like Chemical Valley – or it can be the highly toxic legacy of derelict buildings and sites (redfields” or “brownfields”), that poison the ground and water infrastructure and continue to hurt people, generations after the industry has left.

Sarnia - Map of Detroit Redfields

Map identifying more than 10,000 redfields for reclamation in Detroit. These points overlap with class and race. (graphic: DWEJ)

The upper middle classes, and, of course, the really rich live in protected areas of great wealth – “luxury zones,” if you like, in contrast to “sacrifice zones” – away from the worst of the emissions. They don’t see or smell the chemicals, and it seems they live in a different universe. But even they do not entirely escape the by-products of what happens in the region, even when they are not directly cheek by jowl. For example, David’s aunt and cousins, firmly middle class, the ones who died of cancer well before the age of sixty, lived in the town of St. Clair right across the river from Sarnia’s Petrochemical Refining Complex, which is to say, mostly upwind of it, though in summer, they were in the path of the plume of the Marysville and East China power plants just to the south. But their town took its water from the St. Clair River, and was close to a large plastics plant in Marysville as well. In recent years, a cluster of kidney cancers among children was identified between St. Clair and Marine City, another few miles to the south. And David’s family, like too many others in the region, paid a very heavy price. So, the risk area is a lot bigger than the industrial zones as such.

Still, whether you live close or far from industry is a very big deal indeed, and this is exactly what David and I were talking about as we took our seats in the restaurant on London Road. We knew where the well-to-do and the truly wealthy lived in Detroit and Windsor, but we had seen no evidence of them so far in Sarnia. We knew there had to be a significant number of senior engineers, managers and executives overseeing these operations and linking them with the rest of their parent corporations and the rest of the world, highly paid and living somewhere nearby. So as we perused the menus, we were wondering whether those people had neighbourhoods north of the 402.

David had his list of the companies with facilities in the Sarnia fields up on his mobile phone. It read like a Who’s Who of the biggest names in oil and chemicals, mostly big U.S. firms, but Canadian ones too, even French and German and Japanese transnationals were there. “I can’t even imagine how much wealth this place produces,” he said. “So why does the downtown look so poor? Don’t these companies have any sense of civic pride? Responsibility, even? Where are the public squares, the grand boulevards, the statuary?”

“There’s nothing,” I agreed. “City Hall looks like a sixties police station. But somebody’s raking it in. I wonder where they hang out?”

And that’s when our waitress arrived and offered advice. Just let me say that among the scrawny young men and tired, middle-aged women who were also attending to customers, she was an apparition of loveliness. She had widely-spaced blue eyes, pink cheeks, glossy brown hair draped over one shoulder and tied with a black velvet ribbon, and the sweetest smile imaginable. Her badge proclaimed her name, though I have changed it since this was not an interview on the record. Let’s call her Annette.

“Hi,” Annette said to us, holding her order pad, head cocked to one side, “I couldn’t help overhearing you. Are you here to do research? Are you, like, making a movie by any chance?”

“No, no,” I demurred. “We’re doing some research for a book, actually. Do you live in Sarnia?”

“Yeah,” Annette answered. “All my life. With my family. I go to Lambton College, in the nursing program.”

“Good to know,” I said. “In that case, would you have any idea where the chemical company executives live? I’m guessing they must be north of the 402 because we haven’t seen any evidence of money down here.”

“Oh, yeah,” Annette said, laughing. “Absolutely. There’s a whole bunch. They’re all a good ways north of the 402. There’s some pretty fancy places up there. Lakeshore Road, I mean, and back from there to the water. Really, really fancy.” We nodded to acknowledge we understood fancy. “Ever been to Grosse Pointe?” she asked.

“Sure,” David said. “Often. I grew up in Mount Clemens, so we were through there all the time. “

“Well, some of them are like that,” Annette declared.

Sarnia - Fancy House

Really?” David’s voice was incredulous. Much of Grosse Pointe is hugely wealthy, being, along with the assorted other Grosses (Woods, Farms, Shores and Woods), the communities of choice for really old, really big automotive industry money since the early twentieth century.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Annette insisted against the doubt in his voice. “My fiancée drove me through there a couple years ago, to show it to me when we went to Detroit, to the Joe Louis arena to see the Red Wings play.”

“That’s a very pricey neighbourhood,” David said.

“I know, right?” said Annette. “Like, there’s not as many houses, or anything up on Lakeshore.” She waved her hand in the general direction of north. “But, you know. Same deal.” And while we absorbed that, Annette added, “I live north of the 402 too. I mean, not up there. But I live just on the other side of the highway. It’s a lot better than here.”

She stood beside the table and made no move to leave, so to make conversation David asked, “Is your family employed in the refinery complex?”

“Well, yeah!” Annette said, as though the question bordered on the absurd. “My father and brother are carpenters. They work there full-time. My fiancée is a shift supervisor,” she said proudly. And she showed us a shiny diamond ring on her left hand.

“Nice,” I said. “Congratulations. So. We hear there’s a lot of cancer in this town. You know, close to the plants.” David gave me a look for blurting that out, but she was a nursing student, so what the hell.

“Definitely,” Annette said, as matter-of-factly as if I had said, “I hear everyone drives American cars around here.” For good measure, she added, “Everyone’s got cancer.”

Everyone’s got cancer?” I echoed. “What do you mean? Surely not everyone?”

“Well,” said Annette, “my mother’s got breast cancer. And my aunt has it. And some friends of my parents. My uncle died of mesothelioma. You know, the cancer you get from asbestos. Lots of men, younger than my dad, mesothelioma. Other cancers too. Kidney, colon. Lots of people we know.”

Sarnia - Mesothelioma

58-year-old Blayne Kinart a former chemical worker who died from Mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure in Sarnia, Ontario. Copyright:© 2007 by Louie Palu.

And that had really taken us aback. We paused for a moment to think about Annette’s words, and into the silence she said, “Corunna, you know Corunna?”

“Yes, we’ve been there,” David said. “When we were doing our research along the eastern shore of Lake St. Clair. Very nice little place.” It had been the previous June, when we had driven south of the refineries and seen a green village set back from the St. Clair River. Lots of trees, some century houses, others, suburban styles from the nineteen fifties to the nineteen nineties, all with flowery gardens inset into wide lawns facing the street, basketball hoops and motorboats and late-model cars in the driveways, a pleasant and prosperous community. Though, of course, the huge NOVA chemicals plant is there too, producing billions of tons of ethylene every year.

 “It is a nice place,” Annette affirmed. “Well, my best friend lives there. And she has, like, five girlfriends, you know, from when they were all growing up together, in school? So, like, all the moms have cancer.”

David and I were shocked – maybe we should not have been, but we were. “All five of these moms of your friends, all of them have cancer?” I asked, to verify that we had heard correctly.

“Yup. All the moms, they’re all, like, in their forties. All five. Breast cancer,” Annette declared.

Wow.” I looked at David and I knew he was thinking what I was: how stunning that nugget of information was, but also how bizarre we found Annette’s nonchalant delivery.

“Okay,” David said to fill the gap. “Well, that’s pretty scary.”

“I guess so,” Annette, said. There was certainly sadness in her voice, but no overtones of surprise or even indignation. I found this hard to understand.

“So, in that case, “ I asked, “are you and your family part of an environmental movement here, an occupational health and safety thing? I’ve heard there’s a group of mesothelioma widows trying to get something started. Are you a part of that?”

“Not really,” Annette said.

“Anyone in your family? Your friends?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Your nursing program, is there an environmental health component to that?”

“I don’t think so. Not so far.”

“So,” I persisted. “People here are aware of what’s happening, but not many are doing anything about it. Would that be fair to say?”

“Mm-hmm, yup, something like that,” the lovely young woman replied. “I guess we just accept it.” She shrugged helplessly. “That’s just how it is, I guess.”

So we thanked her appreciatively for speaking we us, and placed our order and made it to go. When we were back in the car heading toward Toronto, having decided to postpone our visit to “Grosse Pointe North,” I told David that Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, when they were employed at the occupational health centre, had written a paper, claiming that cancer was pandemic, but that the local health authority was rigging the numbers by diluting the city population within the county. Apparently Jim had been fired by the municipality not long after. Anette’s remarks brought that story vividly to mind. We would be meeting Jim again in Windsor in a few weeks, and he would talk a great length again, telling us that “cancer is just the tip of the iceberg,” both in Sarnia and in the region as a whole. Meanwhile, as the light disappeared from a grey sky, David and I grew very quiet as we turned our heads for one last look at the plumes and flares receding behind us on the western horizon. We couldn’t figure out if the dark grey atmospheric mass over the city was bad weather coming in, or the result of the airborne effluents. We drove in silence almost all the way back to Toronto.