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People on the Chemical Edge: Introducing the first batch of stories

Between January and April of 2014, my husband, David Fenton, and I went on a quest. Motivated by the desire to understand the reasons for serious illness and early death caused by toxic chemicals in both branches of our families, and with long personal histories as environmental activists, we decided to investigate developments taking place in an industrial region in which David grew up, and whose chemical-producing and chemical-employing industries provided a big enough case study to understand how and why every one of us is affected adversely, directly or indirectly, by today’s chemical regime. We believe this region is a telling microcosm of the larger chemical world, which is a global enterprise worth well over three trillion dollars.  We considered that a visit to the region, and meeting with some of the people who are working to make it a better place to live, might yield some important lessons for thinking about the present and the future, and help us test the validity of certain conclusions at which we have arrived at that point in our own lives.

We expected to write about the experience in a number of different ways. This website is one result of that trip, combined with additional subsequent research. But we really wanted an up-close-and- personal encounter and the region laid out on the map below seemed the right place to get it.

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Essentially we were scouting this heavily populated, trans-border region, cut through by a central watercourse, and defined at both ends by two sets of paired cities. To the north of the region, then, facing each other at the place where Lake Huron empties into the St. Clair River, sit two unprepossessing municipalities: Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan. Sarnia looks like nothing much, but its “Chemical Valley” produces fully 43 per cent of Canada’s chemicals, and is a key site for many U.S. and other transnational petrochemical corporations. People travel between Sarnia and Port Huron over the graceful arc of the Blue Water Bridge; chemical traffic in addition travels through a dedicated rail tunnel underneath the river itself.  Not far southeast of Sarnia lies Petrolia, home to Canada’s oldest oil wells.

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 The Blue Water Bridge links Sarnia and Port Huron across the St. Clair River and the US-Canada border.      

Sixty-five miles to the southwest, two much larger cities, Windsor and Detroit, face one another across the Detroit River – Detroit, the “Motor City”, and Windsor, its little Canadian sister. These cities are connected by the Ambassador Bridge, which is a strategic “free trade” corridor without equal. Ten thousand trucks a day go over the bridge carrying trade goods between Canada and the U.S., but also depositing huge amounts of diesel exhaust into the small streets of an already badly polluted atmosphere in Southwest Detroit.

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2.5 million trucks travelled across the bridge in 2015                      Photo Credit: Toronto Star

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Detroit is an amazing city, a place where American industrial power burgeoned fastest until the last decade of the twentieth century and then  came down hardest of any major city – a city so hard-hit by the flight of people and capital from it that, in effect, it was (and still is) the city where the apocalypse had already happened. Detroit is considered the poorest big city in the U.S. and you can still see it everywhere, though four years ago it was worse. Ruined facade of the old central railway station – Photo Credit: Urbex~Québec.

The apocalypse is visible in the dereliction of vast tracts of industrial plant and old public buildings, in street after street of burnt-out houses, in boarded-up stores along pot-holed thoroughfares in many neighbourhoods, in people visible on those streets as lost and broken as their surroundings. These sights provide a grim experience.

On the other hand – and this is huge “other hand” – Detroit is a miraculous place, because it is also a place where people have been coming together to rebuild, and the rebuilding is so dynamic and so full of life and imagination that it buoys the spirit. Gardens flourish where old buildings have been removed. New housing developments fill in where old houses had been put to the torch. Downtown, old buildings are being refurbished, new restaurants and businesses are opening, young people have been coming to the city and reclaiming old warehouse spaces to studios and lofts, everywhere there is the energy of new life. Stories 10There is a tremendous spirit of renewal, and a lot of it wants to rebuild in ways that are environmentally wise and sustainable. We were especially interested in people, projects and organizations that were involved in the reclamation of old, often toxic properties and their transformation into gardens and homes and business. We found a lot of that, and you’ll find mention of it in the stories posted here now, and yet to come. Photo Credit: Ecocentric

Windsor, which never achieved either the wealth or the throat-slitting crashes of Detroit, a quieter, smaller city on the other side of the Detroit River. But it is struggling mightily, and certainly was then. The Big Three – as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are called – came back big in the greater Detroit area after their long decline through the 1990s and the crash and burn of 2008, but not so much in Windsor. Youth unemployment is very high, well-paying unionized jobs have been steadily disappearing thanks to years of closures, automation and relocation to places like Mexico.

On top of that, Windsor has to contend with the heavy air pollution not only of its own industries, but of all the toxics that come across the Detroit River from Michigan. And all this means, as occupational health researcher Jim Brophy told us, that the health status of Windsorites is among the lowest of all Canadian Great Lakes cities.

 But Windsor too is home to some remarkable people, including union women fighting to improve conditions in what are virtual sweat shops for automotive plastics. The conditions under which they work shocked us – “Third World” is how the women we met described them – and I suspect they’ll shock you too. They’ll also give you a way to really understand why so many plastic products – such as those made by these women – end up being bad for the rest of us. 

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Windsor at its most impressive seen from Detroit                                       Photo Credit: David Fenton

Immediately north of Windsor and Detroit, fed from the north by the long stem of the St. Clair River and drained to the south by the Detroit River and shaped like a leaf of the basswood tree, lies Lake St. Clair, dearly beloved by those who live on its shores. On the Michigan side, north of the 8 Mile Road boundary with Detroit are “the Grosses” – Grosse Pointe, Woods, Farms and Shores – where big money lives in splendour and comfort and shocking contrast to Detroit City proper. On the Canadian side, the shore is residential but the land directly east is largely agricultural.

Let’s call this whole region the St. Clair watercourse. The American-Canadian border bisects it exactly down the middle, and it is a major and important bird migration route.

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Waterfowl in winter on the St. Clair River                                          Photo Credit: David Fenton

On the Michigan side, we also traveled farther west to Lansing, Michigan’s state capital and home to a robust and long-lived chemical lobby; and to Ann Arbor, site of the University of Michigan with its pioneering Environmental Studies department and environmental justice program, and home to the nationally known Ecology Center, one of the oldest and most distinguished independent research and campaigning organizations dealing with toxics in the United States. This coming summer we may yet get to Harbor Beach, about sixty miles north of Port Huron on Michigan’s Lake Huron coast, at the ‘thumb’ of the Saginaw peninsula, because it is a major site for Dow Chemical, which in turn is a huge economic and political force in the state. “If Dow doesn’t approve it,” James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing told us, “it doesn’t happen.”

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Lansing’s famous domed capitol building where chemical business is big business

On the Canadian side we went as far east from Windsor as London, Ontario, home to the business-oriented Western University, to a lucrative insurance industry that has nevertheless been slowly relocating its companies and its jobs to Toronto for many years, and to an automotive capacity which was in a mortal death spiral until the announcement, in Feb. 2014, of a ten billion dollar contract to build light armored vehicles for Saudi Arabia. This was considered by many an odious and despicable contract and yet it was not refused. It was awarded to General Dynamics, a mammoth, US-based defense corporation that would subcontract among seventeen other London-area enterprises over the coming fourteen years. Increasingly, armaments manufacture is moving into the region where the auto industry has failed, in Windsor as well as in London.

We also traveled through the rural areas on the eastern shores of the waterway, from Corunna (south of Sarnia) down to St. Clair Beach (north of Windsor) – agricultural regions where chemical companies have testing fields for pesticides and fertilizers.

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Between Windsor a little northeast of Windsor lies Chatham, where Monsanto and Dupont have agricultural operations. Test farm fields lie under the snow.

I hope to be able to post several more stories from the encounters we had during these trips over the next few months. In the meantime, we begin with four: two from different parts of Sarnia area, one from Windsor and the surrounding area and one from Detroit. What these stories capture – I hope – is the human dimension, often the tragic dimension, of living and working in a chemical region. I hope each one communicates in it own way, how what happens in chemical country affects us, even if we live and work far away. Finally, I hope you will find the everyday heroes in these stories as inspiring as we did.


Varda Burstyn – January 2018