SARNIA, Ont. – An environmental group is challenging development in southwestern Ontario’s “chemical valley” with a landmark lawsuit on behalf of First Nations people who have long said they have been victim to industrial pollution.
In a news conference from Queen’s Park on Monday, environmental activist group Ecojustice alleged that the cumulative effects of government-approved pollution in the chemical valley area in Sarnia, Ont., is threatening the health of Aamjiwnaang residents.
That amounts to a violation of their constitutionally protected human rights, the group says.
Ecojustice has filed an application for judicial review on behalf of Aamjiwnaang First Nation members Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain. It alleges the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s (MOE) ongoing approval of pollution violates their basic human rights under sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – including the right to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to equality.
Aamjiwnaang is a First Nations community located within Sarnia that is surrounded by industrial plants.
A 2005 health study found that the sex ratio in the First Nations community was roughly two girls were born for every boy. Some scientists blamed the effect of gender-bending chemicals from industry.
“This case is about the connection between pollution, health and human rights,” said Ecojustice lawyer Justin Duncan. “The Charter exists to protect the rights of all Canadians, but right now those human rights are being denied to Ron, Ada and other Aamjiwnaang families.”
The application challenges the MOE’s recent approval of increased pollution from refinery operations in Sarnia.
The MOE completely failed to consider and minimize the cumulative effects of pollution resulting from the intensive industry next door to Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the lawsuit alleges.
“We’ve been working tirelessly for eight years now to curb the pollution raining down on our community, but government has been moving at a snail’s pace,” said Ada Lockridge. “We hope our legal case will finally change the situation here.”
The legal action notes that pollution releases in chemical valley include cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, as well as sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. These chemicals are known to cause respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, Ecojustice says.
“I had to uproot and move my family from our home in Aamjiwnaang two years ago as I couldn’t risk my children’s health any longer,” said Ron Plain. “Pollution has cost us dearly and we feel our community has been treated as a sacrifice zone for industrial development.”
“Every time the government approves new pollution, the risks to Ron and Ada’s health goes up,” Elaine MacDonald, Ecojustice senior scientist, said. “The cumulative impact on people in Aamjiwnaang needs to be addressed. Right now it’s like death by a thousand cuts. ”
Dean Edwardson, general manager of the industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, said he can’t predict what impact the legal challenge will have on local industry.
“Anytime you get this kind of publicity it can’t be considered positive,” he said.
Edwardson said the cumulative effects of pollution are hard to establish, as factors such as local weather and lifestyle of residents must be taken into account. Companies in the chemical valley abide by all emissions standards put in place by the province, he said.
“Laws change, and when they do change, we will abide by the new laws. Having said, that a lot of standards are put in place that have safety factors built into them.”