Chemical Valley

In March 2008, I was commissioned to cover a story for Chatelaine magazine on Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley”, and the people who are helping to raise awareness of the city’s toxic chemical neighbors. Sarnia is a lovely little town, which is set by the side of the St. Clair River, along with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and overlooks the St. Clair River and the city of Port Huron, Michigan. Unfortunately, Sarnia’s other neighbor is a series of 46 chemical plants that emit a very large amount of greenhouse gasses, and toxic accidents from time to time. This area is has been dubbed “Chemical Valley”.

The first night I was there, I photographed the chemical plants at night. Think Blade Runner and you’re mostly there. The plants are lit-up like Frankenstein Christmas trees, and their glow can be seen for miles. The odor they emit is overwhelming pungent, unlike anything I’ve encountered before. As I made my way around the acres upon acres of plants, I couldn’t help but stop at one plant that had a giant smokestack that fired an orange burner, like a jet engine, at the top. I shuddered to think at what it was burning exactly.

Esso plant in Chemical Valley, Sarnia.

The next morning my assistant and I photographed the Mayor of Sarnia, Mike Bradley (he had a great interview in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”). He’s been the mayor of Sarnia since 1988, and stands as a great mediator between the chemical plants, and the citizens of Sarnia and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. We had a long talk about the mediation he’s involved in, the city after 9/11, his appreciation for Bruce Spingsteen, and the big summer concert “Bayfest” they hold every year (rockers are encouraged for the first night – Motley Crue, and cowboys the last night – Big & Rich).

Mayor Mike Bradley in his office.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, to photograph Ada Lockridge, Chair of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee. For many years, the Aamjiwnaang people have endured a toxic punishment from Chemical Valley, and Ada is at the forefront to help make the chemical plants more accountable for their impact on her community. Ada was kind enough to take give us a tour of the Aamjiwnaang burial land, where her great, great grandfather, mother and father are all buried. The beautiful, and sacred little stretch of land stands in stark contrast to the Sunoco petrochemical plant that sits belching fire and smoke right beside it.

Ada Lockridge and her Eagle feather.

Later in the afternoon, we were fortunate enough to meet and photograph Sandy Kinart and Barb Millitt, both prominent activists in the community. They help to educate and support the workers and families of Chemical Valley, who end up silently carrying the burden of proof, which could be used against the companies of Chemical Valley, and is badly needed to fight for workers rights. Sandy’s husband Blayne, died of mesothelioma, due to his exposure to asbestos in the workplace, and was photographed by Louie Palu as he slowly succumbed to his terrible disease. Louie’s beautiful and compassionate photographs of Blayne can be seen here.

Sandy Kinart and Barb Millitt beside the Missing Worker Memorial.

Much like Karen Silkwood, these brave and compassionate people have become empowered by the very obstacles they face, and are doing an incredible service to their communities and the generations to follow. I can’t help but think that their work is helping to deliver a final blow to the industrial giant that has neglected and intimidated the people of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang for many generations.

Please read the full artilce by Rachel Giese at, here.

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  1. ada lockridge

    Hi Finn how are you. Nice story thanks for helping to get the word out. A lot of people read the Chatelaine story and just felt sick they didnt know all this was going on here either. The Government guys all read the story and want to work with us they asked us to write everything down and prioritize so they can help. They are listening but do we really know exactly what we should be asking for????

  2. Hi Ada,
    I’m well, and I’m very glad to hear from you. I’m also pleased to hear of the response from the piece. People here in Toronto were very shocked to hear about the situation there in Sarnia as well. Best of luck with your continued talks with the Government. You’ve got their attention, which is a good thing. If there’s any need for my lens in your negotiations, please don’t hesitate to reach me.

  3. unknown user

    These chemical plants have been around since the 1900 and before. The reserve is located in between a sprawl of different chemical plants and so is the neighboring township of st.clair which is down river. The city of Sarnia is located north of the main Vidal st. chemical area. I just don’t understand how it’s just the Aamjiwnaang area that these birth problems are showing up. You would think if these so called chemicals are causing problems it would cause problems for the whole area. There are approximately about 180,000 residents that can possibly be affected by these chemicals. And these studies are focused on a population of 850 residents. These chemical plants provide many jobs for this area and provide greatly for the Ontario and Canadian economy. Other things have to be brought into perspective here, like the amount of smokers and drug users for example in the areas of concern that can cause such statistics. When driving through the area, you can find close to a dozen “cheap smoke” stores. I think more studies need to be done before people can start trashing this area and giving it a bad name for future expansions that will provide new jobs and even possibly newer cleaner products. These chemical plants have cleaned up TREMEDESLY over the past few decades. This area has been a manufacturing hot spot for over a century, why is it a problem now?

  4. Oh, but it’s not my friend.
    Their chemical plants have been silently killing its workers and the people of Sarnia, of all creeds, for the last 50 years.
    So to help educate you, dear anonymous reader, here is the Executive Study summary from Ecojustice’s (formerly the Sierra Legal Defense Fund), “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley”:

    Residents of Sarina and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation face a grave air pollution problem. There are 62 large industrial facilities in this border region, quite literally in their backyards. Approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s chemical industry is clustered near Sarina in an area known as “Chemical Valley.” Located at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron on the border between Ontario and Michigan, the area has become one of the most polluted hotspots in Canada.
    The United States and Canadian governments both have central public registries that track the quantities of chemicals released into the environment each year: Canada’s national pollutant Release inventory (npRi) and the U.S. toxic Release inventory (tRi). This report is the first-ever cumulative analysis of air pollution data from these two registries and the Canadian Greenhouse Gas Reporting program.
    On the Canadian side there are 46 facilities listed under the npRi within 25 kilometres of the Sarina area. In 2005, these facilities emitted more than 131 million kilograms of npRi air pollutants. Although these facilities represent only 2 per cent of Ontario’s npRi- listed facilities, they contribute 16 per cent of Ontario’s npRi air pollution – almost as much as the entire province of New Brunswick’s npRi releases.
    The total amount of greenhouse gases emitted from Sarina facilities in 2005 was 16.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. This represents more than one fifth of Ontario’s total industrial greenhouse gas emissions and more than the province of British Columbia.
    What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the amount of toxic pollutants released. In 2005, the npRi facilities in the Sarnia area emitted 5.7 million kilograms of “toxic air pollutants,” including numerous chemicals associated with reproductive and developmental disorders and cancer among humans. These toxic air emissions are more than the npRi releases from the entire provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and greater than any other community in Ontario.
    Sarnia is home to three of the top 10 air polluters in Ontario from 2005: Ontario power generation’s Lambton generating station, ranked number three, Imperial Oil’s Sarina Refinery ranked number six and Shell Canada’s Sarina Manufacturing Centre, ranked number 10. It also has eight additional facilities that released over 1 million kilograms of combined air releases: Suncor Energy products Sarina Refinery, Cabot Canada plant, noVa Chemicals Corunna site, Fibrex installations Sarina plant, Transalta Energy Sarina Regional Cogeneration plant, Terra International Canada Terra nitrogen plant, and Lanxess East plant.
    In addition, just across the border, but still within 25 kilometres of the Sarina area, there are 16 American facilities listed under the tRi. The total air pollution released from these facilities in 2005 was 1.9 million kilograms. Notable among these facilities is Intertape polymer group that emitted huge amounts of toluene, a known reproductive and developmental toxin. Intertape’s emissions of toluene dwarf any Canadian facility and are number two in north America. There are also two large coal fired power plants, Detroit Edison Belle River and St. Clair River that emitted large quantities of mercury.
    It is the cumulative impact of emissions from these 62 facilities on both sides of the border that has made the Sarina area Ontario’s worst air pollution hotspot.
    The toll these emissions are taking is dramatic and there is growing evidence that the health of the residents of Sarina and the Aamjiwnaang First nation and the local environment has been severely compromised. Thus, there is an obvious need to take precautionary steps to reduce the amount of air pollution in the airshed. There is also an urgent need to commence proper analysis and monitoring of human health and environmental impacts.
    This report highlights some of the strategies that could be used to reduce emissions, such as aggressive pollution prevention efforts, increased enforcement of existing laws, and enactment of tougher regulatory standards. It also recommends that no additional sources be added to the airshed and calls on the federal, provincial and local governments and First Nations to work together to take the necessary steps to improve and protect the health of the community.

    Please read the entire, comprehensive study at:

  5. hello
    My names Jarret, I’m 25 years old and a resident of Ontario. I would just like to say that this area depends heavily on the jobs created by these plants. I personally know many employees of these plants including the safety manager of shell as well of several process operators, and I can say without a doubt in my mind that these guys are healthy and happy to work there. They’re always telling me how well there employers treat them, and how personal as well as environmental safety are stressed on a daily basis.
    Now this is just my opinion but if your going to write an article telling everyone how evil these chemical plants are then why wouldn’t you include interviews with people that work there? Ill tell you what, you try and close down these facilities and watch how fast the residents of Sarnia rise up to say no. We need them now, its just the way it is.
    thanks for reading
    ps over 90 percent of the “smoke” you speak of is steam from the cooling towers. not poison

  6. Thanks for checking-out my blog Jarret, and for taking time to write.
    There are definitely two sides to this debate: essentially, there is one that asks that boat not be rocked and that things remain the same, and the other that asks questions, and challenges the status quotient in Chemical Valley.
    The Valley is in a precarious environmental & economic state these days. Making sure that the businesses, the workers, and the neighboring residents of the Valley are safe and profitable is what everyone wants. We all rely on what the Valley produces, and to say that they should be shut down is unfeasible. Sarnia’s chemical industry is vital to the Canadian economy.
    However, any claim that the plants are 100% safe is a fallacy, and sustainability is the key for the Valley’s future.
    I implore you to read the following studies and photo essays being raised by the other side of the table:



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