NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa (Photo courtesy of NDP website)NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa (Photo courtesy of NDP website)

NDP Indigenous relations critic weighs in on benzene emissions at Aamjiwnaang

Elevated benzene emissions recorded at Aamjiwnaang First Nation earlier this week are now being discussed at the provincial level.

Workers were sent home Tuesday, after "dangerously high levels" of the toxic substance were documented in the Band Office area.

Aamjiwnaang staff were complaining about headaches, nausea and dizziness, and there was no notification sent through Sarnia-Lambton Alerts.

This prompted a letter from Chief Chris Plain, calling on the federal, provincial, and municipal governments to immediately impose a shutdown of the INEOS facility on Tashmoo Avenue.

When contacted by Sarnia News Today, INEOS Styrolution said, "We understand the concerns raised by our neighbours, including the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community, regarding benzene readings from a local station. We are carefully reviewing this data and any concerns. The site works closely with the MECP (Ministry of Conservation, Environment and Parks) to ensure we stay within the prescribed emissions limits."

NDP Deputy Leader and Critic for Indigenous and Treaty Relations Sol Mamakwa urgently called on all levels of government to intervene and halt the alarming spread of toxic airborne chemicals from the site on Thursday.

"The pursuit of profit should never come at the expense of Indigenous people's health and well-being. The ongoing airborne pollution without consequence from INEOS Styrolution perpetuates a system of colonialism and systemic racism. It is unacceptable, and we must shut down this facility until they get their act together," said Mamakwa. "We're talking about human beings here. We're talking about the lives of Indigenous people. If this were happening elsewhere, it would be declared a state of emergency."

"This is a message to all levels of government: First Nations are watching your response. The government's failure to act will only allow these companies to further jeopardize our future for quick profits. We will not tolerate this continued neglect of our people's health and safety," Mamakwa said.

Speaking with Sarnia News Today, Mamakwa said it's a "deeply troubling" situation to happen in a province as rich as Ontario.

"I know the government has answered in a way that they're taking steps, but I think it's pretty clear that if this was happening in Toronto or impacting a community in the GTA for example, there would be undoubtedly a state of emergency and this would be headline news," he said.

Mamakwa issued a challenge to anyone downplaying the situation.

"If this government thinks this is an acceptable way for First Nations to live, I urge this government to go down to Sarnia and breathe the same air that Aamjiwnaang First Nation is subjected to," he said.

Sarnia News Today reached out to MPP Bob Bailey for comment and was told he was unavailable on Thursday.

A response was sent from Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin's office late in the afternoon.

"Wednesday, Minister Khanjin met with Chief Plain about the situation at Aamjiwnaang First Nation," read the statement. "The minister also spoke with representatives from INEOS and made clear our government’s expectation that they quickly identify and reduce these emissions. When it comes to protecting health and safety, we will not hesitate to use our regulatory tools and enforcement actions to hold emitters to account. As part of our continued response, Environmental Compliance Officers have been conducting site visits at INEOS, our mobile air monitoring unit has also been deployed for several days now and remains on site in Sarnia, and we continue to ensure compliance with all past orders made to INEOS, including requirements to install emissions control equipment and undertake additional air monitoring."

The statement acknowledged there's also more that needs to be done.

"That’s why we are working on updates to the benzene technical standards for petrochemical and petroleum facilities, and to strengthen the Environmental Penalties Regulation so that more financial penalties can be imposed. We will continue to look at additional steps and compliance actions that may be required," it read.

Meanwhile, Aamjiwnaang First Nation community members gathered Thursday to discuss the elevated benzene levels. Band council wanted to give community members an opportunity to have their concerns heard and to discuss next steps.

Buildings in the Band Office area were closed again on Friday as staff were directed to work from home.

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