“They need to do something”: Environment Commisioner asked to investigate Shell incidents

Santana Plain, 4, joins his dad, McKay Swanson, and other members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in an Idle No More Protest just after an incident which sickened residents of the First Nation. Santana was one of the children at the local daycare during a spill at Shell Canada Jan. 11. EcoJustice is now asking the Environmental Commissioner to press the MOE to investigate.

Santana Plain, 4, joins his dad, McKay Swanson, and other members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in an Idle No More Protest just after an incident which sickened residents of the First Nation. Santana was one of the children at the local daycare during a spill at Shell Canada Jan. 11. EcoJustice is now asking the Environmental Commissioner to press the MOE to investigate.

“They need to do something.”

With that lawyers and scientists for the environmental law group EcoJustice have asked Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner to launch an investigation into recent releases at Shell Canada.

On Jan. 11, the company had a sour water leak at its plant south of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. It took over an hour before emergency sirens sounded warning of the potential hazard.

That leak contained mercaptan, a sulphur based compound.

Officials at Aamjiwnaang said 40 people complained of things such as headaches, sore eyes, nose and throats and rashes.

Elaine MacDonald, a senior scientist with EcoJustice has been working with Aamjiwnaang activists Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain for years. She says EcoJustice has watched with concern for the number of chemical incidents in the Sarnia area but felt this was the time to act. “The one in January seemed like it was particularly dangerous; there were a lot of people in the community who were upset and…had experienced health effects.

“Enough is enough. We thought the Ministry of the Environment was investigating these things but apparently, they’re not…we thought if there is ever one (incident) we need to act on, this is it.”

EcoJustice has formally asked the Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller, to direct the MOE to investigate the incident under the Environmental Bill of Rights. In the documents, EcoJustice lawyers lay out the sequence of events during the Jan. 11 incident where community leaders acknowledge there was a breakdown in communications which delayed emergency warnings.

The document sights a number of concerns including when the spill actually occurred; “Evidence from the witnesses indicates that the spill may have started well before the CVECO code was called and may have continued after it was cancelled,” EcoJustice officials write.

The document also says chemical readings taken by the MOE show high levels of benzene from the incident. “Although MOE has been quoted in media stories regarding the incident stating that the contaminant levels measured are within the provincial guidelines, this statement is not supported by the sampling results,” say EcoJustice officials in the submission.

But MacDonald writes one of the biggest concerns is the Jan. 11 incident may not be an isolated incident. EcoJustice noted the CVECO codes used for community notifications show they were updates from an incident on Nov. 31, 2012. That incident showed an odour coming from the biotreater. CVECO also issued a warning on Jan. 10, the day before the spill with the same problem.

“These CVECO code notifications indicate that the incident on Jan. 11, 2013 may have actually been part of an ongoing problem at the Shell refinery that had not been fixed dating back to at least Nov. 31, 2012 and not a one-time incident as has been communicated to the public,” EcoJustice charges in the request.

MacDonald says they’re also asking the Environmental Commissioner to look into the April 26 incident where three contract workers were taken to hospital.

“We want to see if there is an ongoing issue at the Shell refinery that is creating these incidents,” MacDonald told Sarnia This Week. “We don’t want them to investigate just one spill, we want to investigate all of them and start laying charges when charges are necessary.”

If the commissioner agrees there should be an investigation, he will direct the MOE to look into the concerns. MacDonald hopes that will make a difference.

“The local (MOE) guys are kind of used to this, they go out check it out, go back to the office and forget about it,” says MacDonald. “This will be flagged at a higher level, it may put pressure on the local office to be more proactive and dig a little deeper,” says MacDonald.

“Our hope is to get the ministry to pay attention and do a proper invest…You don’t have 40 people having spontaneous health  issues; it obviously was connected to the spill; it needs proper attention …if charges are warranted – I believe they are – then they should be laid.”

Lockridge agrees the lack of investigation is frustrating but says her main concern is finding out about the spills in the first place.

“It is even more frustrating when they don’t sound their alarms to let their neighbours know what’s going on,” she says. “That is the most upsetting because that’s pretty toxic stuff.”

Lockridge says on April 26, while she was collecting air samples of the strong odour, she noticed a little girl waiting for the bus. And she worried about her health.

“Most kids you say ‘get out there, the bus is coming’ …I asked the MOE, ‘should we get out there and sniff the air to see if the kids should get on the bus?’”

MacDonald knows Lockridge’s frustration and says the appeal to the Environmental Commissioner is a way to apply some very public pressure. “They need to do something… its due time that these spills get some attention…we’re looking for enforcement,” says MacDonald.

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