Ada Lockridge speaks to Varda Burstyn in March, 2014 about health and the struggle to improve it in the Aamjiwnaang Reserve, Sarnia ON.
Ada Lockridge is a long-time environmental activist, and in March 2014, was also a co-plaintiff with Ron Plain, in a suit against the Ontario government for the human right to breathe clean air, because all previous efforts to improve the air quality in Chemical Valley had failed. Varda asked Ada to talk about the background to this suit – the issues, the history – in the Aamjiwnaang community. You can also find Ada speaking on video about life in her community at https://www.ecojustice.ca/province-commits-fund-health-study-chemical-valley/
V.B. Can you tell me about the types of toxic injury that you see in your community?
AL: When you say, “toxic injury,” what do you mean by that? What just sparked my curiosity, I guess, is that around Sarnia, Aamjiwnaang, whatever, you go to the doctors, nobody will say your problem is because of where you live. It’s when you get sent to London, Ontario, where they’ll say: “Oh, you live in Sarnia. Don’t you?”
VB: Right. So that’s political.
AL: I don’t know if you know this, but we were tested for DDTs and DDEs, by Niladri Basu [link to https://www.mcgill.ca/nrs/staff/academic/basu] who was from the University of Michigan then. They tested 30 mother-child pairs on the Reserve. Tested my daughter, Felicia. The kids had to be no less than a certain age. They came and they did blood, hair, urine, and they did tests, like they showed you a puzzle and you had to make it work, and had to put the pegs in.
VB: Cognitive function.
AL: They tested the dirt outside, the dust inside, our pet dander, the water and everything too. We only got the hair samples back I think. What it showed though was the kids had higher levels than parents. That was awful. With the DDT, we talked about – was it Rachel Carson?
How close is Aamjwinaang to the refineries? This close. Photo: Vice News
VB: Sure. Rachel Carson, wrote Silent Spring.
AL: Yeah. She talked about the eggs not forming properly, and the birds, and stuff like that. I’m like, is that why my kid keeps breaking? She’s thirteen and she’s had six casts so far, three concussions. What is it? It’s right in the joint, like in your arm, in your foot, and your leg – growth plates. It’s really kind of common around here now. I was going: “I’ve never heard of that before.”
VB: When was this study done?
AL: I don’t know, just about two years ago (2012). What they had to do is they had to give us the results first. I don’t know if you know of the Lambton County health study, it was formed to make our birth ratio look bad. That’s what I feel that it was.
VB: It was formed to make your birth ratio look not as bad as it had been made it out to be?
AL: Okay, so because a lot of people were concerned about all our studies that were being published and getting known, a bunch of people got together. You could look it up on the internet, “Lambton Community health study.” The epidemiologist up there in Sarnia, she did a birth ratio study of all of Lambton County and concluded, “Oh, there was no problem.” Of course, when you’re adding all the people not getting these wastes and everything daily, daily exposure, who don’t have that, of course you’re going to do that. She also switched the year timeframes too to not match up with the years that we already had, and that changes it all too.
VB: In other words, she diluted the sample with all kinds of people who weren’t in the target zone.
VB: And she changed the time parameters so you’re looking at a different group of people.
VB: Nice. Really nice.
AL: I know. That’s the way that was formed. What the reasoning behind it, it was to see if people living close to industry, if their health was affected.
VB: Right. And surely it’s not affected at all.
AL: I have all the results right in front of me here. I didn’t like the study it didn’t compare apples to apples. They compared us to adult female Canadians or Americans. I said: “I don’t like my kid being compared to an adult, for one thing. And who are these Americans or Canadians? Do they live near industry? Are they away from industry?” Because I know you have to compare all this stuff properly. They said: “No.” They just compared to whoever has had these kind of tests.”
VB Can you just tell me more about the findings of the chemical blood tests?
AL: I took it to the doctor and he said: “Where the hell did you get this? I’ve never seen anything like it. Can I have a copy? What are they doing? Just trying to scare the hell out of you?” I said: “Well, they’re doing a good job.” Because we knew going into it all we were going to get is what [single chemicals] showed up and at what levels. We know that nobody knows the combination of everything and what it will do to you.
VB: Absolutely. There’s no understanding of synergies.
AL: My DDEs was 0.60, my daughter’s was 76.0. These are in PPB [parts per billion]. The comparison value was 418.8. For my DDP, mine was 0.14, my daughter’s was 30.7. Why is she so much worse? Another thing: I’ve had a lot of people come to the community. Everybody knows I’m about the environment. I had some friends from Quebec, and they said: “There’s an awful lot of fat people around here.”
The Interplay Between Environmental Chemical Exposures and Obesity: Proceedings of a Workshop, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine National Academies Press 2016
VB: There you go, bingo! Endocrine disrupters are also called “obesogens.”
AL: Another one that people were saying is: “There’s an awful lot of women here with their hair thinning.” They’re pointing that out.
VB: Sure, this affects the whole estrogenic balance, all the sex hormones…
AL: Looking at this paper here too, the PBDEs…
VB: Those are the flame retardants.
AL: Those ones will affect your thyroid too.
VB: They certainly will.
AL: I had half of my thyroid removed not long ago. I quit smoking and, oh God, my health just went downhill. That’s when they found some things in there, some growths. They weren’t sure if they’re cancerous or not, They took a biopsy. They didn’t take enough. I go: -For crying out loud. Can’t you just take the damn thing out, then have it tested?” -”Yeah, because we’d have to take it out anyway.” A lot of things down here tell you to quit smoking. The police come down for National Addiction Awareness Week and that. But you know what? When you step outside, that’s exactly what’s going in that air out there.
VB: Okay, so when you started to discover that there were extremely hazardous chemicals surrounding you, which I’m sure you had suspected since time immemorial, but when you really began to get a grip on what was going on – what kinds of recommendations, demands did you make of the various levels of government? How have those changed, and what have been the results?
AL: I have lived in different areas quite often. I grew up along the river right across from that Detroit Edison plant. I didn’t get the smells I get by where I live now. I did see the river, we were in that river all the time. We saw the oils going by, the tar going by, whatever, and were evacuated like: “Leave your homes and wait until you’re told to come back,” quite a few times. Then I’d go through the [Sarnia air] every day for school because we went into Sarnia every day. You’d see those plants, you just didn’t pay attention to them. When it stunk, people were like, “Eww,” but we were never taught any of this in schools – public school, high school, nothing. You could only get information from some of the guys if their parents worked there, and then they only knew what section they were working in, what kind of chemicals [were in that section]. It happens and you know those plants are there, they’re getting bigger and bigger, and getting a little closer and closer to your home. We always figured: “Somebody must approve it. Somebody must be looking out for us. Right?” But no.
Imperial Oil, 2002, they had a great big catalyst release. This catalyst blew for like six hours without them knowing and they were going all the way down to Sombra [Ada’s home town], so that’s a long ways. Everybody’s houses were covered in it. They had to clean all the houses inside and out, they cleaned their cars, they cleaned their furnaces and everything. We said: “Okay, that’s fine and dandy, but what about we’ve breathed in?”
VB: How do you clean the lungs out, and the veins, and the blood?
AL: Right. Then not long after, Suncor announced that they were going to have their world’s largest ethanol plant adjacent to the communities. A bunch of us said: “That’s it. Enough is enough. Leave us alone. Go somewhere else.” An ad hoc committee was formed here on the reserve to get rid of this ethanol plant, to make sure it didn’t come. That’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like that.
VB: That was a watershed moment.
Ada Lckridge and community members Photo Ecojustice
AL: Yeah. There was a group of five or six of us. It was like, okay, what do we do? The air, the water, it was so huge. We had other people helping us. They’d go: “No, you have to focus and pick your fight.” Then the folks of OHCOW. Do you know OHCOW?] Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers? [Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, link to section on them in article] They put a flyer on our mailbox down here, something like: “Come up to OHCOW if you want to learn about chemicals and their releases.” We went up to Point Edward,and then that’s the first time I ever heard of the National Pollutant Release Inventory [link to: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/national-pollutant-release-inventory.html ] They showed us that the Industries self-report and they showed us the health issues that are associated with single chemicals. We were looking. “Wow. We know a whole bunch of people like that. Oh my God.”
We got to be friends with those people. We asked them: “How can we fight this?” They said: “Do you have any health studies done that you did on the reserve?” There was one, after a release from Suncor back in ’93 I think. They handed it up. Do you know Michael Gilbertson? They sent it to Michael Gilbertson [link to http://scholar.uwindsor.ca/ijcarchive/index.2.html ]
VB: The Great Lakes, International Joint Commission researcher?
AL: Yes that one, he read it and then he noticed that there was a lot of high levels of mercury found here. He would ask about the birth ratio and other things. He said: “Can you find out?” Because to be a member, you had to register yourself and get your own individual number, so we have all of that. I went to it. “How many years do you want to go back?” They said: “Whatever, 20 years.” They did the birth ratio. And that’s when we saw how bad it was, that we were losing our boys. Margaret Keith and this other girl, Connie Mackenzie were all co-authors to the birth ratios. We had to keep everything quiet until it was peer reviewed. It was hard, but we kept it quiet.
VB: Is that when Martin Mittlestaedt [link to https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/where-the-boys-arent/article4123675/payload/?arc404=true ] wrote “Where the Boys Aren’t” in the Globe and Mail, in 2004?
A.L. Yes. He wrote the story, and word spread. You know, an amazing thing: this teacher from a Catholic school in Florida and her kids – they had their alumni that are now doctors, lawyers, scientists, judges, all help them with this – they did a mock trial, Aamjiwnaang versus Suncor. We go down there, all of those kids are so enthusiastic. They were going: “Please, please, let us come, let us come.” Kids that weren’t even in that class. It was kind of cool, and the parents were there. They started the trial and I started to cry. I’m a crier. I’m tough other ways, but I will start crying. So the parents asked me, “Why were you crying?” I said, “Because I didn’t know that anybody cared about us.” We were always taught that white people don’t like us, that we’re on our own. It was very touching and just loved it. And then people from all over the world were coming to do documentaries, like from California, Japan, Paris, everywhere.
VB: You guys are super famous.
AL: Our Chief doesn’t like to talk to press. So he asked me to talk. A TV guy came from London, Ontario, Bryan Bicknell from A-Channel News, to talk to me. I said: “You have to be nice to me, because I will never do this again, because I’m not a speaker.” But he did a good job. We both kept in contact. Whenever something happens, I just have to call them. Now it’s CTV News.
VB: So you have a sympathetic reporter there. And what about the history of relations with government?
A.L. We take our concerns to Chief Council. What we got them to do is to write a Band Council Resolution to the government. Because I would go to Indian Affairs and then they’d ship it off to, I don’t know, whoever was responsible in the government part.
VB: You’re talking federal government? Indian Affairs is Ottawa. Or is there some kind of provincial office?
AL: We went… Was it Windsor or Toronto? We went because there was a new provincial side of Indian Affairs. Band and Council Resolution has to go to Indian Affairs. But we also forwarded it on [to Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment]. One of the demands was that we do not want anything added to our airshed until they got a grip of… It was worded differently than that, but until they got a grip on what is out there right now.
VB: The year that you did this?
AL: That had to be 2004, 2006, somewhere around in there.
VB: What has happened?
AL: We had lots of MOE [Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment] people here. They’d come down and they were [asking me all kinds of questions], and I said: “Listen, why are you asking me all this stuff? Ask the companies, the ones who are making all this shit.” At the time, I was taking around a bunch of Ministry of Environment Toxicologists – they called it a toxic tour.
Toxic Tour of Chemical Valley Photo: Toronto Media Coop
They were asking me questions like this. Anyway, then we had our bucket brigade to take the air samples. Because Shell was wanting to build another great big plant up the road a little further. If they got the okay to do that, they would shut down some of the stuff that’s across the road from me, but that’s shutting it down; it’s not cleaning it up, taking anything away, nothing. We were working with provincial and federal people, Ministry of Environment, for a full-blown environmental assessment, that’s who you would talk to. They were talking to us weekly, so we were meeting with them, working together, kind of.
I took my first air sample, myself and [another band member], and it showed like three different kinds of benzenes in the air. We took that sample and it got shipped away to California to see how much was in there, and what levels. Then they checked to see in the States: what was acceptable there for long-term health-based standards? Ours was way over. Then they checked over here [for Canadian standards]. They ended up, … “Geez, there was no standard.”
VB: We’re behind, actually.
AL: Then I went to the meeting. I said, “Oh, hello, everybody. Did you get the paper today.” -”Yes, we did, Ada, the whole office got it. Okay? We happened to draw you up a chart on how you can get benzene.” -”Oh, okay, what do you got?” -”Well, through smoking.” -”Nobody was smoking.” -”Yeah, but it could have been your car exhaust.” I go: “My car was shut off and I was in front of the car.” I said: -”What else do you got?” -”Well, it could have been cars going by.” I said: “Yeah, there were four cars that went by at the time, and that’s why we have a witness with us when we do it. Right, Wilson?” Because he was there. They go: -”Okay.” -”Anything else you got besides that it could have been the industry that we know it was?” No. The officials were having these big ol’ meetings to present to the community, because they have to do that, to talk to the community. Before, they never consulted us at all, so now they do have to consult us.
VB: That’s a step forward, right? But can I ask you – the people in Southwest Detroit fighting all kinds of toxics said to me just a couple of days ago: “We have a voice now because we have to be consulted, but we don’t have a say because nobody has to do anything about what we say.” Is that the same with you?
AL: Well, we did stop that ethanol plant from coming.
VB: Okay. Hey, fabulous.
AL: Jim and Marg were going: “Oh my God, I’ve never seen this happen before. My God.”
VB: That’s fantastic.
AL: The whole community joined in though.
Ron Plain, co-plaintiff with Ada Lockridge and community environmental activist
Photo Sarnia Observer
VB: Okay, so if you were to say: what were the ingredients of your success, what would you say?
AL: Well, What we did with that Suncor thing… what was really cool, there’s a really well-respected lady here… She had a dream about walking around the reserve, we called it, “Walk of Prayers.” It was so cool because traditional people came, every kind of religion people came out, the youth and everything, and we walked around the whole reserve, and we were praying at all different parts. We walked all the roads. We were meeting with the Suncor reps quite often. We got a petition going. The good thing was when we were doing that petition, we said: ‘We, the people of Aamjiwnaang…’ I almost had the whole voting population of Aamjiwnaang’s signature.
Is the right to breathe clean air a part of the right to life, liberty and security of the person? And regardless of race? Not so far.
SINCE 2014: Although the people of Aamjiwnaang succeeded in stopping Suncor’s new ethanol plant project and were optimistic in 2014 about major additional changes, they were not successful in getting government cooperation to clean up the air quality and stop the emissions – legal and accidental – that put them at such great risk. In 2016, in response to a five-year lawsuit by Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain (launched three years prior to the time this interview took place) the Ontario government promised to take certain actions to enhance air quality [link to https://www.ecojustice.ca/changing-course-chemical-valley/]. But by the fall of 2017, as Toronto Star and Global News coverage showed, nothing had changed in the daily lives of the reserve residents, or, indeed, for the air quality of the residents of the city of Sarnia. So, with the help of EcoJustice, Ada Lockridge has gone back to court. The toxic conditions in Chemical Valley remain. Promises by Ontario’s government to study and take action have been made to protests that more studies are not needed, rapid and serious action is. What will it take to make it happen this time?
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