Chemically Bonded

| 1st December 2006
For the Canadian Aanishnaabek tribe, who live on a reserve surrounded by chemical plants, there seems no escape. Do they leave, and abandon their past, or stay, and perhaps lose their future? Zoe Cormier investigates

Stand in the middle of Aamjiwnaang and look straight ahead in any direction. Beneath the trees are small houses, trailer homes, a babbling creek, children scampering about. It looks like any other Canadian native reserve. But it doesn’t smell like one. Instead of crisp breezes and pine needles, the air smells of sulphur and diesel fuel. Lurking behind the trees and the homes are giant smokestacks and gas flares from the massive chemical plants that surround the 2,700-acre reserve. Look closer at the creek and you’ll see a sign that reads: ‘KEEP OUT Talfourd Creek contains toxic substances known to cause serious health risks’. As for the children – very, very few of them are boys.

Down and out in Chemical Valley

Aamjiwnaang (pronounced ‘Om-ji-non’) sits in the middle of Canada’s ‘Chemical Valley’, a cluster of chemical manufacturing plants located just south of the city of Sarnia, in the southern tip of the Canadian province of Ontario. The region prides itself on being home to Canada’s largest industrial zone, one of the largest in North America. There are more than 35 petrochemical, polymer and chemical factories here and more on the other side of the St Clair River in the USA. All the big names have plants in Sarnia, including Bayer, Shell, Suncor, Dow, DuPont, Nova, Royal Polymer and Imperial Oil.

From almost anywhere you can see a smokestack or flare peeking out from the treetops. Just beyond the old daycare centre you can see the pipes and towers of a Nova factory. Aamjiwnaang’s cemetery is surrounded by giant vats of volatile chemicals owned by Suncor, fringed with sirens and security cameras. So polluted is the land that different areas of the reserve even have their own distinctive smells – some are like rotten eggs; others like gasoline; others like dental freeze.

Chemical spills and releases are so common that the residents often ignore the warning sirens, which go off up to four times a month. According to Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog, there have been more than 800 spills into the St Clair River from both sides of the border in the past 20 years.

Most recently, the release of a cloud of hydrofluoric acid at the Suncor plant in July 2006 sent 23 workers to hospital. ‘The workers were dropping’, says Ada Lockridge, a member of Aamjiwnaang’s environmental committee. ‘We could see them running, holding their mouths, just falling to the ground. There were fire trucks galore, and helicopters landing on the front yard.’ ‘They didn’t even tell us about it – and we are 40 feet from Suncor’s front door’, adds Ron Plain, another committee member and native of the resident Aanishnaabek tribe.

A lot of the time, they don’t even know what the accidentally-released chemicals are. ‘One time, these black and green clouds came towards us from Suncor – they just told us it was “non-toxic”,’ says Lockridge. ‘Well, I don’t know how it got there, but this thick white goopy stuff was landing on people’s cars – this thick substance that bubbled, it was actually eating the paint off the cars.’

Even if accidents like that never happened, each factory in Chemical Valley releases its own unique brew of toxic chemicals every day – including benzene, ethylene, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ammonia, a slew of heavy metals (including lead, mercury, nickel and cadmium), and dioxin (widely considered to be the most toxic chemical known to man).

Sold down the river

There are three main ways in which the federal government has failed to curb pollution in and around Sarnia.

One: when accidents happen, the federal government rarely holds the chemical plants accountable. Until a recent bill was passed in Ontario prescribing fines for spills, ‘the ministry wasn’t taking any enforcement action’, says Ramani Nadarajah, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Two: the cumulative impacts are not taken into consideration. Each industrial facility is given a certificate of approval dictating how much of a chemical they are allowed to release – but the location of that facility is not considered. For example, if a new plant wants to be able to emit a certain amount of lead, the ministry does not consider how much lead is being emitted by neighbouring factories. ‘That is a huge weakness in the legislation’, says Nadarajah.

And, three:
when toxic waste is dumped on their land it is – believe it or not – legal.

It’s a giant gap in Canadian environmental legislation, and it works like this: there are no national laws that prohibit toxic spills on land. Instead, each of the 10 provinces has its own laws. But native reserves – like army bases and government buildings – are considered to be federal land. So technically – legally – there are no laws whatsoever to prevent toxic dumping on Indian land. ‘You could literally pull up here in a truck and open your hoses up in our ditch, and the most you would face is a $125 fine’, says Ron Plain.

He’s not being hyperbolic. In 2004 one of the Aanishnaabek agreed to let somebody (Ron declines to say who) store barrels of styrene and toluene on the reserve. ‘The barrels leaked all over, it was a nightmare. Environment Canada, the Ministry of Indian Affairs and the provincial Ministry of the Environment just argued back and forth over who was going to pay the bill – while the stuff was leaking all over the ground.’

‘Probably the reason there are no laws’, explains Gord Miller, environmental commissioner for Ontario, ‘is because Aamjiwnaang is the only Indian reservation where you can move hazardous waste just by crossing a road. Anywhere else, you would have to put it on a truck and move it many miles, where we would legally be able to stop you. But in Sarnia you just cross a line and you’re in Indian land – and you’re scot-free.’

When they signed a treaty with the British in 1827 (Canada did not become a country until 1867), the Aanishnaabek were ‘given’ about 5,000 acres. Then during the 1940s the big chemical companies started to move in, looking for sites to make rubber for the war effort. At that time and up until the late 1950s, when a company wanted to purchase some Aamjiwnaang land, the Aanishnaabek would first have to hand the land over to the government, who would then sell it on their behalf. The government was keen to get them to sell – and knew how to convince them. ‘“Surrender votes” were usually held in the Fall – and the government of course knew that a lot of people [who mostly worked as construction workers or farmers] were unemployed between November and April, and were more in need of the extra money’, explains 67-year-old Wilson Plain, who was a child at the time.

‘During those meetings, some of the elders said things like, “What about the smoke that’s coming from the stacks now? What is that doing to our health?” They spoke in Ojibwe – but their concerns were never ever recorded, even when the recorder spoke Ojibwe too. I feel it was deliberate – so that when, later on, people objected to the pollution, the government would be able to say, “Well, nobody said anything at the proceedings”.’ And the Aanishnaabek could do little to negotiate – registered Indians in Canada were not even allowed to hire their own lawyers until 1961.

John Beaucage, Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, explains how this situation came about. ‘The Indian Act [of 1876] set out specific rules that differentiated between “status” and “non-status” natives,’ he says. ‘Those who chose to live on the reserves were granted official “status” but were prohibited from voting, and from becoming teachers, lawyers, soldiers or members of the clergy – and from hiring lawyers.

‘So companies would come into our territories, and it didn’t matter what flowed into the waters – they weren’t hurting regular people, they were hurting people who had no right to vote.’ For this reason, in both the USA and in Canada, the rule of thumb for a century has been to use native reserves as unofficial dumping grounds for all kinds of waste – uranium tailings from mines, toxic waste from nuclear plants, and, in Aamjiwnaang’s case, barrels of toxic petrochemicals.

Although revisions to the Indian Act since 1961 have greatly expanded their legal rights, the 750,000 reservation natives throughout Canada still live a world apart from the rest of the country: infant mortality is 1.5 times higher, men die seven-and-a-half years younger, diabetes is three times more common, tuberculosis is eight times more frequent. Reserves everywhere are plagued by malnutrition, unsanitary water, derelict housing, and the usual fare of impoverished communities: drink, drugs, smoking and suicide. So bleak is life on most reserves, that an aboriginal youth is nine times more likely to commit suicide than his white counterpart.

Boys will be girls

The 850 inhabitants of Aamjiwnaang didn’t used to worry about the factories. Twenty years ago when they swam in Talfourd Creek and an oil slick would come by, they would just get out of the water and wait for it to pass before diving back in. But by the late 1990s, people started to get concerned. Every now and then they’d find a deformed animal on the reserve – recently they came across a sickeningly twisted kitten, and a couple of years ago one of their dogs gave birth to a litter of severely deformed puppies.

To find out exactly what was going on in Aamjiwnaang, Ada Lockridge started going door to door, asking questions. The answers stunned her – ‘I felt sick to my stomach, I cried’, she says.

Sixty per cent of the Aanishnaabek children suffer from asthma – three times the national rate. About a quarter of the children have some kind of learning or behavioural disability. Forty per cent of the women on the reserve experience miscarriages and stillbirths – some of them as many as six in a row.

But what really shocked Lockridge was that only one-third of the children born around the turn of the millennium were boys.

Worldwide, the proportion of boys to girls born every year is relatively constant – about 102 to 108 boys are born for every 100 girls. Although this ratio in any community naturally varies over time, Aamjiwnaang’s boys didn’t just vanish in one fluke year – they disappeared gradually over time.

Before 1990, the ratio of boy to girl babies was relatively constant. Then the number of boys started to fall, gradually, until by the period 1999 to 2003, only 34.8 per cent of the babies were male.

Ada Lockridge is certain that she knows what is responsible: endocrine disruptors (chemicals that mimic hormones).

Dr Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, who in May 2005 published the first study to link prenatal exposure to phthalates to outcomes in human babies, thinks she may well be right. ‘Sex ratio is a sentinel event for endocrine disruption’, says Swan. ‘When you see an altered sex ratio of this magnitude, something is altering the hormonal functioning at a basic level.’

Popularly known as ‘gender benders’, endocrine disruptors behave like hormones – most mimic oestrogen, but some can suppress testosterone, or interfere with natural hormones in other ways. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to a huge variety of abnormalities in both humans and wildlife around the world, including ‘feminised’ animals, population crashes, cancers, immune system malfunctions, and skewed birth ratios. A recent study found that 45 per cent of the white perch fish in nearby Lake St Clair are ‘intersexual’.

Many of the chemicals released by Sarnia’s factories are known and suspected endocrine disruptors. These include dioxins, phthalates, hexachlorobenzene, heavy metals, and many polycylclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to PollutionWatch, a non-profit environmental group that analyses government pollution data, Sarnia facilities released more than 223,000 kilograms of suspected endocrine disruptors to the air during 2003 alone.

In 2005, The Environmental Defence, a sponsor of PollutionWatch, tested the blood of a number of Canadians, including three people from Aamjiwnaang. Wilson Plain (Ron’s cousin), his son Wilson Jr, and his granddaughter Jessie volunteered. Wilson Sr had 32 chemicals in his body (including 16 endocrine disruptors), Wilson Jr had 36 (21 endocrine disruptors), and Jessie had 20 (12 endocrine disruptors) – including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, manganese, PCBs, PAHs and a variety of pesticides. While Wilson Jr had the highest total number of chemicals in his body of anyone tested, it was the number of endocrine disruptors in the three people from Aamjiwnaang that is the most suspect.

Many environmental scientists believe that the ‘missing’ boys in Aamjiwnaang are due to one of two possibilities: either that all the oestrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment have caused the men to produce more female and fewer male sperm; or that the pollution is causing a disproportionate number of male babies to miscarry. However, many in the chemical industry dismiss Aamjiwnaang’s missing boys as a ‘statistical anomaly’.

Meanwhile, the Aanishnaabek charge that Health Canada (the government branch responsible for monitoring and protecting the health of Canadians) has made every attempt to ignore their pleas for help. They say that while scientists from around the world have visited their reserve, the government has shown almost no interest. ‘They refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem at all’, says Ron. ‘And the reason they won’t acknowledge there is a problem here is because that acknowledges liability.’

Who covers the cost?

There were plans earlier this year for Health Canada to conduct a comprehensive health study of the entire region. The chemical companies offered to fund the study, but, as even Sarnia’s mayor Mike Bradley points out, ‘industry should not be involved in the financing – the credibility would be compromised.’ Health Canada’s official line is that ‘all stakeholders should share the costs.’ But neither the city of Sarnia nor Aamjiwnaang has that kind of money. Since ‘the community is requesting that Health Canada fund the study in full’, the government at this moment has no plans to conduct the full study.

Regardless, a 2005 peer-reviewed scientific paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has already shown that the decline in births of boys in Aamjiwnaang is statistically real. Moreover, another First Nations (Chippewa) community in Ontario – which is genetically similar to Aamjiwnaang, and has roughly the same lifestyle – has a normal birth ratio.

This isn’t the first time that boys have gone missing from a polluted community: the birth ratio fell in Seveso, Italy after an industrial explosion that released a cloud of dioxins; and in Minamata, Japan, after the lake was poisoned with mercury by upstream factories. However, what makes Aamjiwnaang important for us all is that this may be the first time that missing boys cannot be linked to one single environmental catastrophe. Rather, the culprit is one we all face: long-term exposure to chemicals at legal levels.

While they wait for the government to take action, the Aanishnaabek are doing what they can. There are plans to conduct their own studies – funded, ironically, with the very money they get from allowing the factories to construct pipelines under their land. They aim to keep the media aware of their struggle – there is talk of a documentary on the history of the Aanishnaabek, right from the beginning, so that the rest of the world can understand how things got this way. But beyond that, there is little they can do to stop the factories polluting their land.

So for now they have to settle for small victories. They did manage to prevent Suncor from building a new plant on their borders two years ago. They now know that they can force companies to cough up many millions of dollars for pipelines, as opposed to 60 years ago, when they settled for pitiful sums. And there are proposals for a few new plants – and if they can’t stop them, at least they can make it ‘very, very expensive for them to build’, says Ron Plain.

Meanwhile, Ron’s third child was born in September. ‘I’m wrestling with myself right now’, he says. ‘Every instinct is telling me to protect my children, to take them the hell out of here. But if I do that I’m abandoning my community and my relations, and I would carry that guilt with me.’

There are rumours that the government may decide to offer each resident of Aamjiwnaang a sum of money – maybe C$100,000 – to move to a new reserve about three hours’ drive north (Ron says he’s even seen the area they have staked out for them). Ron says he won’t leave for such a sum because ‘there’s no employment up there, there’s no opportunities for anything – where could my children work? If my children can’t work they’ll be on welfare – and C$100,000 does not go far.’

Compared to most natives in Canada, the Aanishnaabek are well off. They are nestled in one of the most populous and bustling areas of Canada, and live next to the US border. Unlike many reserves, Aamjiwnaang is in an affl uent part of the country and there are a lot of jobs available. ‘We’re in a perfect location, it would be hard to give that up’, says Ada Lockridge.

Most of the tribe members might agree to move – not because of their wallets, but because of their health. But in so doing they would cease to be themselves. For the aboriginal peoples of Canada, their land is far more than just property – it’s an integral part of their history and their identity.

‘I ask non-native people – where do you have to go to find your great-greatgrandfather’s grave? Most don’t know. I do’, says Ron Plain. ‘I can tell my son stories about his great-great-grandfather, and we can sit on his grave while I tell him those stories. That’s why it’s important to me, it’s a connection to the past.’

But, given the ubiquity of the pollutants that surround them and the damage it has wreaked on them, it seems as though the Aanishnaabek people, ultimately, have few options other than to leave their land, and their past, behind.

Zoe Cornier is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006


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