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After First Nation residents sickened, feds order companies to tackle benzene

Environment and Climate Change of Canada has ordered petrochemical companies in Sarnia, Ont., to implement controls to limit emissions of the cancer-causing substance benzene.

The order comes roughly a month after high levels of benzene were detected by Aamjiwnaang First Nation, leading to the community to declare a statement of emergency.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault issued an Interim Order under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which compels companies to take action if high levels of benzene were detected between March 1, 2023 and Feb. 29, 2024.

Click to play video: 'Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels'

Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels

Petrochemical companies that detected concentrations of benzene above 29 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) measured over a two-week period during that time would be required to implement vapour control measures on benzene storage tanks, the minister said. Ontario’s Environment Ministry has set the annual average limit for benzene at 0.45 ug/m3. The province does not regulate the hourly limit.

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Asked why it took nearly a month for Ottawa to respond to the crisis near Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Guilbeault said his department acted “promptly.”

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“We’re putting in place an emergency order today specifically regarding one company which is responsible for those benzene emissions,” Guilbeault said. “I would challenge you to try and find an instance where the federal government was so quick to act.”

Meanwhile, Ontario’s environment ministry has suspended the operating approval for chemical plant Ineos Styrolution until major repairs are made including removing all benzene storage from the site and fixing leaky equipment.

On April 16, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is surrounded by industrial facilities, recorded levels that were 22 times higher than the amount that the Ontario government deems to be safe. Global News has previously reported that average levels of the chemical at the First Nations’ northern border surpassed 100 ug/m3 for 14 hours between April 1 and April 16, reaching as high as 150.5 ug/m3 on April 14.

Residents told Global News they became ill, suffering from headaches, sore throats, nausea and dizziness, with some sent to hospital.

Click to play video: 'Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick'

Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick

Under the provincial order issued by Ontario, the facility must meet certain conditions, including suspending production operations at the facility and installing full vapour control on vessels containing benzene, and implementing a comprehensive benzene monitoring and community notification plan.

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Ineos Styrolution did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The company has previously said that it “detected no emissions exceeding the prescribed limits in the weeks before the initial MECP order issued on April 16, 2024.”

Ineos has said Ontario’s timeline to address the conditions at its plant is “simply unrealistic.”

“Our engineers and technical teams have raised significant concerns about safety and elevated emissions if the Ministry insists on the ill-informed timelines contained in its May 1,2024, order,” a statement said.

“INEOS Styrolution has invested more than $50 million in our Sania site over the past five years,” the companies said. “It has the expertise and the intent to continue to implement planned improvements on benzene emissions abatement at the site, safely and effectively.”

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