Politicians and industry says Transport Canada is wrong about ethyl benzene spill amount

The Sichem Montreal, seen here on the water near Montreal, has been fined $7,800 for an ethyl benzene spill in the St. Clair River last August.

The Sichem Montreal, seen here on the water near Montreal, has been fined $7,800 for what Transport Canada says is a four to five gallon  ethyl benzene spill in the St. Clair River last August.

Transport Canada says just four to five gallons of ethyl benzene spilled into the St. Clair River from the Sichem Montreal.

But both emergency officials and industry leader are questioning the finding.

In August 2012, the Sichem was unloading at Stryolutions in St. Clair Township when it spilled ethyl benzene into the river. Emergency officials were only notified when downstream monitors detected the chemical in the water. Then water intakes at Walpole Island and Wallaceburg were closed for a number of days as a precaution.

Transport Canada recently finished its investigation finding about four or five gallons of ethyl benzene spilled from the Sichem while it was unloading. Officials concluded that “most of it evaporated rapidly.”

St. Clair Township Fire Chief Roy Dewhirst chuckled when he heard Transport Canada’s finding. “I think there was significantly more than that,” he says. “They picked up levels (of ethyl benzene) all the way down to Courtright.” That’s about 10 kilometers away from the source of the spill.

“I believe it was significantly more than five gallons because it had leaked out and it leaked on into the night and into one and two in the morning…it was hot and it would have evaporated very quickly and to get to levels into Courtright, I find it hard to believe.”

Dean Edwardson of the Sarnia Lambton Environmental Association – a group funded by the Chemical Valley industries – agrees with Dewhirst.

“No,” Edwardson responded when asked if four to five gallons was possible. “I think it was more than that but I don’t have a number. It doesn’t seem probable in my opinion.

“We had picked up ethyl benzene in our monitor (in Courtright) – with four to five gallons, with that distance and the potential for dilution, it wouldn’t have picked it up. Intuitively, it doesn’t seem accurate.”

Edwardson says SLEA’s monitoring equipment picked up 3.32 parts per billion of ethyl benzene – a level not high enough to harm human health according to the US Environmental Protection Agency but above the provincial standards for esthetics. He says it is more likely there were hundreds of gallons spilled.

“The problem was it was coming off the boat and there were no gauges to monitor…to determine exactly what went overboard.”

After its investigation, Transport Canada levied a $7,800 fine against the owners of the Sichem.

Local politicians called it “not even a slap on the wrist” and “peanuts” adding the dollar amount would not encourage shipping companies to make sure this didn’t happen again.

But Transport Canada spokesperson Pamela Mintern says fines are based on the ministry’s regulations. “It was determined in this incident that there was a violation of section 187 of the Canada Shipping Act 2001,” writes Mintern in an email to Sarnia-Lambton This Week. “The penalties for a violation of this section range from $1,250 to $25,000. For a first offence, the penalty for a corporation or vessel is $6,000. This baseline amount may be adjusted by considering any mitigating or aggravating factors. For a first offence, the administrative monetary penalty amount can be increased by as much as 30 percent but it cannot be reduced, despite any mitigating factor.

“Considering all the factors in this incident, a penalty of $7,800 was deemed to be the appropriate amount.”

St. Clair Township Mayor Steve Arnold still says Transport Canada should have done more. “If the fine was the maximum ($25,000) at least it drives the point home…It says ‘we take this seriously.’

“One third says ‘it is not really that important; here you go.’”