Minister Guilbeault imposes strict benzene pollution controls in the pursuit of environmental justice for Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Sarnia, Ontario

by ahnationtalk on May 17, 202460 Views

From: Environment and Climate Change Canada

May 17, 2024

Minister Guilbeault issued an Interim Order to the petrochemical industry in Sarnia, Ontario, responding to the significant danger to human health of volatile organic compounds, including benzene, originating from these facilities.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Sarnia have experienced poor air quality conditions that have spiked in recent months, according to monitoring done by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Province of Ontario, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The high levels of toxic air pollution led to the closure of the Aamjiwnaang’s Band Office and community services buildings, including their daycare and resource centre. The situation can lead to a variety of serious health issues for local residents and merits an immediate response to protect the community.

This is why Minister Guilbeault has published an Interim Order under existing authorities in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. These efforts are also consistent with Canada’s commitments in relation to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Order requires that petrochemical production facilities in Sarnia with fenceline concentrations of benzene above 29 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) measured in any of the two-week sampling periods beginning on March 1, 2023, and ending on February 29, 2024, at any sampling location established in accordance with Ontario regulations implement vapour-control measures, including fully closed vent systems with vapour control on certain storage tanks that store benzene. The Order will be in effect for 14 days, pending Governor in Council approval, which would extend the Order for up to two years. The Order is complementary to the Government of Ontario’s efforts to reduce benzene pollution in Sarnia. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community, which is bordered by Sarnia’s refinery and petrochemical district, will directly benefit from this Order, which will reduce benzene emissions and their accompanying health impacts.

The Government of Canada is also releasing a “what we heard” public consultation update on the proposed Reduction in the Release of Volatile Organic Compounds (Storage and Loading of Volatile Petroleum Liquids) Regulations that informed the Interim Order. The government thoroughly consulted with Aamjiwnaang First Nation, other Indigenous peoples, industry, provinces and territories, and other stakeholders in drafting these regulations. These proposed Regulations are designed to further reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, including benzene, from the petroleum and petrochemical industry in Canada. The Government of Canada is now working to finalize the Regulations in the months ahead. Once finalized, the Regulations would apply to terminals, refineries, upgraders, petrochemical facilities, and bulk fuel facilities that store volatile petroleum liquids in tanks that meet or exceed a specified capacity or load and unload volatile petroleum liquids that exceed a specified daily or annual quantity. The Regulations would set a timeline to install abatement equipment and would also further reduce air pollution from hundreds of sources across Canada.

Quotes

“It is simply unacceptable that the people of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Sarnia face ongoing issues with poor air quality. Indigenous peoples have a right to a healthy environment and too often are impacted by polluting industries. Protecting clean air, clean water, and the health of Canadians should be the priority for every order of government in Canada. I truly appreciate the Government of Ontario’s actions to address this situation to date. Now, based on the air quality data and lack of action by industry to address their pollution, I am using the powers provided by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to advance environmental justice in this community.”

– The Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change

“Everyone across Canada deserves safe air quality no matter where they live. This Interim Order will support work to preserve air quality and protect human health, especially for Aamjiwnaang First Nation. We will continue to support the community through benzene level assessments to evaluate potential health risks from exposure, and through strong regulations and safety measures to mitigate harmful air pollution.”

– The Honourable Mark Holland, Minister of Health

“Aamjiwnaang acknowledges and supports the announcement of the Interim Order issued by the federal government. Our Environment Committee, Environment Department, Council and Chief, and the citizens of Aamjiwnaang, for whom we have been advocating, are appreciative of the collaboration between the federal government and Aamjiwnaang to uphold our treaty and inherent rights. Aamjiwnaang is confident that this Order will not only add to the protection of the air quality in Aamjiwnaang, but also relieve the burden placed upon the air shed in the Sarnia–Lambton area.”

– Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s Chief and Council

“Too often, First Nations unfairly have to deal with the impact of pollution and contamination. When people’s health is on the line, we have a collective responsibility to take action. This responsibility includes all levels of government and the private sector. The federal government is at the First Nation’s side, working in true partnership with its leadership, so that all of the community’s members are safe, healthy, and are treated equally.”

– The Honourable Patty Hajdu, Minister of Indigenous Services

Quick facts

  • Aamjiwnaang First Nation is exposed to benzene levels above the acceptable level of risk for developing cancer, and the levels of benzene have been steadily trending upwards over previous years. The recent spikes earlier this year have significantly increased the risk to this community, and immediate action must be taken. Some volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, are carcinogenic. They also contribute to air pollution that causes worsening of respiratory symptoms, development of disease, and premature death. Long-term exposure to benzene can cause cancer. Exposure levels are higher in communities near large emission sources, including Indigenous and low-income communities already facing increased health burdens.
  • In the lead up to the Interim Order, various federal departments have responded to requests from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to address the situation. Health Canada experts visited the site to take air quality samples that were analyzed for benzene, and then shared the results with Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Indigenous Services Canada has engaged their Health Emergency Management team to work directly with the First Nation.
  • The Government of Canada is taking action that is complementary to steps already announced by the Province of Ontario to immediately address benzene emissions impacting the health of the community. We support the Government of Ontario’s efforts to limit harmful air pollutants. Engagement with Aamjiwnaang First Nation and other Indigenous communities helped to inform the development of the proposed regulations and today’s Interim Order. The Reduction in the Release of Volatile Organic Compounds Regulations (Petroleum Sector) were finalized in 2020 and are in force and helping to reduce volatile organic compounds emissions from petroleum refineries, upgraders, and integrated petrochemical facilities. The Government published proposed strengthened regulations last February. The proposed regulations and the Interim Order build on these existing Regulations by targeting new sources of emissions from the petrochemical facilities.
  • The new requirements in the Interim Order are already in place for similar facilities in the United States and are not expected to hurt Canada’s competitiveness.
  • Benzene is a known human carcinogen (able to cause cancer). Long-term lifetime exposure to benzene can affect the blood and is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer (for example leukemia) and other adverse health effects, including blood diseases and reduced immune functions.

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Contacts
Kaitlin Power
Senior Press Secretary and Communications Advisor
Office of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change
819-230-1557
Kaitlin.Power@ec.gc.ca

Media Relations
Environment and Climate Change Canada
819-938-3338 or 1-844-836-7799 (toll-free)
media@ec.gc.ca

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