Transport Canada won’t release report on St. Clair benzene spill

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 an ethyl benzene spill in the St. Clair River last August.

A Sarnia environmentalist says Transport Canada is refusing to release a report on a benzene spill into the St. Clair River by an oil-chemical tanker.

In August, the Sichem Montreal was taking on ethyl benzene from Styrolution Canada in St. Clair.

At the time officials couldn’t determine how much of the ethyl benzene spilled into the river and eventually downstream water users – Walpole Island and Wallaceburg – were told to shut their water intakes from the river after the chemical was detected. The water intakes were closed for several days.

Transport Canada has completed its investigation into the incident and says the ship was at fault. It estimated four to five gallons of benzene spilled – a number widely disputed by local industry leaders and emergency responders.

The ships owners were fined $7,800.

But Zach Nicholls of the local environmental group SHAME, wanted to know more. He filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the report about the spill from Transport Canada.

He was refused.

Nicholls says Transport Canada says the records he asked for are “exempt from release” under the Freedom of Information Act and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. The Dangerous Goods Act says any information obtained by an inspector, any records of communications between the emergency center and Transport Canada relating to an actual release or information relating to security can be withheld.

“I’m disappointed they won’t release it,” says Nicholls noting people he knows were swimming and fishing in the river at the time of the spill and would like to see the official report. “If it isn’t a big deal, there should be no reason to want to hide.”

Nicholls will file a complaint since Transport Canada doesn’t have an appeals process. “I don’t feel very hopeful about it when it is just me,” he says.

But Nicholls is buoyed by the fact so many public officials questioned Transport Canada’s findings. “I’m really, really happy to hear the comments from SLEA (The industry group Sarnia Lambton Environmental Association), and from (St. Clair) Mayor (Steve) Arnold and (St. Clair Fire) Chief (Roy) Dewhirst…when all three are questioning that (investigation) there is a reason for that; it is probably bigger than the report suggests.”

And the environmentalist found it ironic that the same day he received the letter, the federal government announced plans to improve marine safety.  The feds made the announcement in British Columbia where there is rising concern about plans to ship Alberta oil to China. The measures including increased inspections of foreign tankers and expanded aerial surveillance to detect oil spills.

“The federal government announced it was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make shipping safer, the exact same day I got the refusal,” says Nicholls.

“The transparency is definitely lacking.”

– Heather Wright