Movie makes plea to reign in toxins released from Chemical Valley

Jim Bloch for the Voice Reporter [with two photos]

“When I think back, I wish we’d never come to Sarnia,” says resident Jean Simpson in the opening of Pamela Calvert’s 2007 documentary, “The Beloved Community.”

“My dad had a choice at the time, but they thought Sarnia was Imperial Oil, they thought wow, this is a big oil city – and it was, there was a lot of work here. When we got off the train down at the station, and they took us down to where we lived in Bluewater, my mother couldn’t get over it, she said it was just so beautiful, it was like a fairyland. Then when you woke up the next morning, the stink from the plants was enough to knock you over. It was terrible. But she always thought with the lights at night it looked like a fairyland.”

The fairyland turned out to be a long-term ecological and medical nightmare for the workers in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (Chippewa), which is bordered on three sides by petrochemical plants.

The Blue Water Sierra Club and St. Clair County Community College’s Green Team sponsored the screening of the movie in SC4′s Fine Arts Auditorium last Thursday.

Stunning data emerging from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia in 2004 sparked Calvert’s interest in making the movie. For more than a decade, beginning in 1993, Aamjiwnaang women had been giving birth to girls at a rate of 2:1 times more than boys. The standard ratio is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. Researchers suspected the sex disparity in births and high cancer rate in the area were linked to pervasive chemicals in the Valley known as endocrine disruptors, which cause disorders in the messages delivered by the reproductive hormones that guide human development.

This is one of very few pieces of hard evidence in the film. Among the others: 39 percent of Aamjiwnaang women experience miscarriages or stillbirths compared to the Canadian average of 25 percent. Twenty-three percent of Aamjiwnaang children have learning disabilities compared to 4 percent of the general Canadian population. One Aamjiwnaang woman in the movie, Sandy Kinert, had the highest amount of toxins in her body of any Canadian in the Environmental Defence 2006 national study of 68 toxins. The study found 30 carcinogens and 31 reproductive/developmental toxins in her blood and urine. Her granddaughter, 14, had 12 hormone disruptors and 17 reproductive toxins in her body.

“The city has already lost a generation of men to workplace-related cancers,” said Calvert in an online interview about the film. “Now the women are discovering a reproductive time bomb – because of their own exposure to a cluster of hormone-mimicking chemicals called ‘endocrine disruptors,’ the next generation may be at risk.”

Instead of numbers, the film tells the story of Sarnia residents, especially women, white and Indian, spearheading a movement to clean up the local environment, stop the building of future petrochemical plants and to embark on a systematic study of the impact of Chemical Valley on residents and workers.

In one horrific scene, a woman takes two frozen puppies out of her freezer that died of respiratory problems after her dog, who played in the nearby woods and presumably drank from a contaminated creek, was in labor 14 hours. One was born without ears, fur and eyes and had feet like flippers.

“I’m waiting for someone, maybe from Guelph University, to come and analyze them,” she says, putting them back in their freezer bag. “Are our grandchildren going to be playing in that water?”

Calvert’s focus on stories instead of data gives her movie a power it wouldn’t have otherwise possessed. It also underlines the importance of “the precautionary principle,” outlined by Dr. Margaret Keith, former occupational health research coordinator of Ontario Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Inc. of Sarnia-Lambton, who participated in the panel discussion following the screening. The idea is that when human and environmental welfare is at stake, protective action should take precedence over ironclad scientific proof. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof to people or corporations embarking on the threatening action, not on the potential victims of the action.

“I think we already have enough evidence,” said Keith. “It’s a public health issue. I don’t know why we need a body count to stop poisoning people.”

“There are substantial bodies of evidence on every chemical used and produced in Sarnia,” said panelist Dr. Jim Brophy, retired director of Ontario Health Clinics of For Ontario Workers, Inc. of Sarnia Lambton, who appeared in the film. “How many leukemia victims do you need before you stop exposing people to benzene?”

In addition to Keith and Brophy, the post-film panel included Ada Lockridge, an Aamjiwnaang community organizer, also in the film; Dean Edwardson, representing the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, a group made up of Chemical Valley petrochemical companies such as Shell, Suncor, Bayer and Dow Canada; Kristen Jurs, stormwater coordinator for the St. Clair County Health Department; and Doug Martz, who heads the Macomb County Water Quality Board.

“What we’re facing in this story of real heroes and activists is a story about our lack of democracy and control to shape the environment in which we live,” said Brophy.

The larger issue, he added, is that the unrestrained production of greenhouse gases is making our planet unsustainable. It doesn’t matter that leaders of the petrochemical plants live and raise their families in Sarnia. That’s the irony. The poisoning of Sarnia and the world can take place without malicious men and women running these companies.

“We’re driven by an economic dynamic that threatens the whole world,” he said.

Edwardson noted the industry has been doing a better job at curtailing spills and emissions, but breaches are basically inevitable.

“As long as you have these plants, you will have fugitive emissions,” Edwardson said. “You get them down as low as you can and manage them the best you can.”

Jurs pointed to the limitations of St. Clair County Health Department in issues pertaining to water quality.

“We don’t have jurisdiction over drinking water,” she said, pointing to federal and state governments, working through the local water plants. “The only drinking water we have jurisdiction over is well water.”

“Is it safe to swim in the river?” an audience member asked.

None of the panelists gave a straight-forward answer.

“We do a limited amount of e coli monitoring at our beaches,” said Jurs. “But we do no chemical monitoring. We barely have the budget to monitor for e coli.

What can be done?

Martz urged residents in southeast Michigan to call on their county and national representatives, including Rep. Candice Miller, to continue to fund the Drinking Water Protection Network at a cost of 25 cents per person. The network tests for 28 chemicals and looks at seven water quality parameters, in real time, in the water going into each of the 13 water plants between Port Huron and Wyandotte. It notifies operators further down the line of spills. It allows water plant operators to make immediate decisions about treating their water in the event of contamination, including shutting intake valves. Even though there have been more than 700 reported chemical spills in the St. Clair River since 1986, the Black Out spills of 2003 – when five days lapsed before citizens and plants were notified – and the Super Bowl spill of 2004 provided the impetus to initiate the system, combined with national security concerns flowing from Sept. 11, 2001.

Activist Lockridge urged residents to join environmental groups and make their concerns known to legislators and corporations: “Say it out loud.”

“I don’t think industry will do anything until they are forced to by the government,” said Keith, the provincial occupational health research coordinator. “Nothing will happen until there is a huge groundswell of demand… Become well informed. Start or join a group… You need coalitions pushing for change.”

The title of the movie invokes Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept of “the beloved community,” in which all people are integrated and interrelated in a society of brotherhood and mutuality, transcending race, class, tribe and nationhood.

“Dr. King spoke about The Beloved Community as a reachable goal for human society in the here and now,” said director Calvert. “Not conflict-free, not heaven, but a global condition in which simple human decency makes hunger and hate (and dare I say toxic exposure) simply unthinkable, and in which conflicts are resolved amicably but decisively on the side of justice.”

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