A crisis in Canada’s chemical valley

PAT OHLENDORF December 9 1985

A crisis in Canada’s chemical valley

PAT OHLENDORF December 9 1985

A crisis in Canada’s chemical valley


Canada’s “chemical valley”—a collection of 13 petrochemical, glass and plastics factories stretching more than 10 km along the banks of the St. Clair River south of Sarnia, Ont.—has traditionally been a symbol of the country’s industrial strength. Indeed, the image of the valley’s bristling towers and tanks decorating the $10 banknote is a reminder of its close association with national prosperity. Then, in August an acci-

dent at a Dow Chemical Ltd. plant led to the creation of a so-called blob of toxic chemicals on the river bottom and tarnished the valley’s image. In an unrelated development on Nov. 18, the provincial government suspended Sarnia’s district environment officer from work for 20 days while officials investigated his connection with a local waste disposal company, Canflow Services Ltd. And in another development several companies and local businessmen face charges of fraud, theft and kickbacks following an RCMP investigation. Together, the three events are threatening to turn the valley’s onceproud reputation into one of shame.

Still, it was the cleanup of the dioxin-laced blob that occupied downstream residents near Sarnia last week. On Wednesday, with about 25

per cent of it vacuumed up and transported to a protective pond on Dow’s property, three of the company’s seven divers complained of skin irritations around their helmets. As a result, the company halted the operation temporarily and called in outside medical consultants as well as officials from the ministry of labor. Said Dow environmental control manager Steve Bolt: “Three of the divers had developed what the doctors diagnosed as contact

dermatitis, which they attributed to the long hours of wearing the helmets —not to substances in the water.” At week’s end, company spokesmen said that the divers had regained their confidence in the safety of the operation and were eager to continue.

The ostensible cause of the blob was an August spill of 2,500 gallons of one of Dow’s products, the cleaning solvent perchlorethylene. But Bolt said that the “perc,” a clear chemical 60 per cent heavier than water, “just did its job” —picking up other chemical contaminants already present in the river sediments until it became saturated and turned black and tarry. Where those other substances came from is the subject of intense study. Many experts say they fear that some of the 16 deep wells and two salt caverns in the Sar-

nia area, which companies used for years to dispose of their hazardous wastes, are leaking up through cracks and faults into the river. Said provincial Environment Minister James Bradley: “We have not ruled out that possibility, but our best guess now is that the perchlorethylene is picking up old, historical contaminants in the sediments.”

Still, the ministry has launched a series of tests to determine whether the

deep wells and salt caverns are indeed leaking and perhaps even poisoning drinking water supplies. Officials are analysing seepage into the railway tunnel that runs under the river about a mile north of the blob to determine whether contaminants found there earlier were caused by railway fumes or by leaking disposal wells. They are also making a detailed chemical analysis of the blob in order to compare it to samples from different disposal wells. And they are drilling five test wells into the stone formations above the disposal wells to see whether drinking water from that source is being contaminated by toxins.

Downstream residents say they are also concerned that dioxins and other highly toxic chemicals will be agitated during the cleanup and pollute drink-

ing water drawn from the river. On Nov. 26 a residents’ group from Wallaceburg, a community about 45 km south of the chemical valley, met with Bradley and officials to request that their water be piped in from Lake Huron rather than the St. Clair River. The minister refused the request for the time being. He added that scientists test the water near the blob every two hours and monitor the water in three nearby treatment plants—including Wallaceburg’s—weekly. Said Wallaceburg dentist Douglas Steen: “They told us that our water is probably the most thoroughly scrutinized of any water supply in North America.” Many area residents say that for decades industries and governments alike have failed to alert the public when spills have occurred. The perchlorethylene spill was only one of 11 accidental discharges of liquid or gas at Dow Chemical this year and one of 275 reported in the chemical valley in the past decade. Still, it is one of the few that has received significant government and media attention. In a court case scheduled for January the province has filed six charges against Dow under the environmental protection act and the water resources act. Said Toby Vigod, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, who last week proposed a public inquiry into the Sarnia situation: “I

think the pollution is simply the result of years of cozy relations between government and industry in the Sarnia area. Industries in the area have not been under stringent controls, whether concerning spills, waste treatment or whatever.

Control orders have been negotiated behind closed doors with no input from the public.”

In fact, even as divers vacuumed up the contaminated sediments, police continued to investigate those relationships. On Nov. 18, the same day that the federal and provincial environment departments issued a joint report on pollution in the St. Clair River, Ontario’s deputy environment minister,

Roderick McLeod, suspended Sarnia’s regional ministry officer, James Dochstader, for 20 days with pay while police investigate his relationship with Canflow Services Ltd., a local waste disposal and oil recycling company. In 1982 Dochstader was involved in the process in which Canflow gained a permit to treat wastes on a site in Petrolia, 22 km southeast of

Sarnia. He also helped Canflow to negotiate to dispose of waste water from the treatment process in Petrolia’s municipal sewage plant. But local resident Charles Whipp told Maclean's that the stench from Canflow’s wastes in the plant often kept townspeople up at night. Last year ministry officials found that Canflow was treating wastes unauthorized by its permit and warned the company to stop. At the same time, the ministry recommended that Canflow surrender its key to the municipal sewage plant.

Police and environment officials are also investigating Canflow’s role in shipping wastes to Detroit that were eventually burned at a General Motors Corp. factory. And Canflow president Dwight Mott is facing two counts of theft and 20 counts of fraud in a preliminary hearing next month. A total of 19 individuals and 12 companies have been charged with fraud, kickbacks and theft following a yearlong RCMP investigation in the chemical valley.

Meanwhile, Bradley is acting swiftly to launch investigations of possible wrongdoing. Recently, he doubled the personnel of his ministry’s Sarnia office. The ministry also has a new enforcement branch, with a staff of 50—most of whom are former police officers—that will eventually grow to 63. The branch is currently reviewing all existing industrial discharge permits in the province, starting in the chemical valley, where 500 million gallons of industrial waste water hit the river each day.

As well, Bradley intends to introduce legislation that would allow larger fines for companies and even jail sentences for executives convicted of environmental offenses. Declared Bradley, who last Friday received an award from the Environmental Law Association: “This government is prepared to undertake whatever activities are necessary to clean up the situation in the St. Clair River.”

For his part, former Conservative environment minister and former Sarnia mayor Andrew Brandt accused Bradley of “bad-mouthing” chemical valley industries. But whatever the truth of his charge, the developments have dimmed the once-bright image of Canada’s chemical valley.