Ford government slammed for withholding vital air pollution data from Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Opposition parties blasted the Ford government for delaying the release of critical air pollution data which projected startling levels of a cancer-causing chemical in the air of a First Nation community near Sarnia, Ont.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it was “terrifying” that members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation had to wait months for data from the Ministry of Environment, which could have significant health implications.

“It should not be the case that we have these levels of a carcinogen that people are exposed to,” Horwath said.

“It’s shocking that this information has not been acted on, even though the government knew about it and the former government knew about it.”

Read more: Cancer-causing air pollution forecast at 44 times annual level in Ont. First Nation, docs show

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The data included a forecast for benzene pollution, a chemical linked to cancer, up to 44 times the annual level in the northern part of the First Nation.

The modelling data, obtained in part through freedom of information legislation, also indicated sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels were at much higher concentrations in the First Nation than other major Canadian cities.

“This level of concentration of that chemical, we wouldn’t accept it anywhere else. So why is it acceptable here?” Horwath said.

“This is the opposite of reconciliation.”

The criticism follows on the heels of a report from Global News which detailed how Aamjiwnaang had been demanding the government release data on several carcinogenic chemicals for months. The community has also been fighting for other reports on air pollution since 2017.

Both the reports and a long-awaited proposal for a new SO2 regulation were released last week following questions from Global News.

“The only reason that he shared any of the data is because of the pressing by (Global News),” said Aamjiwnaang Chief Chris Plain.

Environment Minister David Piccini deflected when asked about the delays in releasing the new data and blamed the previous Liberal government, which hasn’t been in power for nearly four years.

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“It’s unacceptable how things were allowed to continue in the Sarnia region,” he said. “We’ve launched a panel working with the community, working with Aamjiwnaang First Nation, working with industry, working with health-care experts and have worked to reduce SO2 emissions.”

Meanwhile, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said it was “deeply troubling” that the government would delay handing over this important data.

“One of the most important things is full and transparent disclosure and not to make people have to beg for information and sort of treat it like it’s some kind of bizarre scavenger hunt,” he said.

Read more: Ontario enviro watchdog, First Nation demand health study after ‘Chemical Valley’ investigation

Del Duca said current and future governments need work harder to achieve a commitment to reconciliation with First Nations communities.

“There’s a certain hypocrisy when we all say the right things about the need for genuine reconciliation- and yet we can’t even engage in a real discussion,” he said.

Chronic exposure to chemicals such as benzene have been linked to cancers like leukemia or lymphoma, according to the federal government.

A health study was launched in the community following a 2017 Global News investigation which revealed a series of industrial leaks and spills in the Sarnia area and highlighted stories of residents who believed it was making them sick.

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The recently-released benzene data is part of the health study’s air exposure review, and also looked at other known carcinogens like 1,3 butadiene, as well as sulphur dioxide, which can cause respiratory distress.

The modelling data indicated sulphur dioxide levels over three years was forecast to be as high as 11 parts per billion (ppb) in Sarnia’s industrial heart and five to six ppb in north Aamjiwnaang.

Toronto, by contrast, had an annual SO2 level of 0.3 ppb for the last year data was reported.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said it was a “devastating example” of how pollution can impact a First Nation.

“There are multilayered factors with respect to the government of Ontario and the work that we need to do together to make sure these people can have quality air like everyone else,” Miller said. “It’s something that I’ll be working on.”

The Environment Ministry recently introduced a new sulphur dioxide regulation, which, if approved, would reduce levels from petroleum refineries by up to 30 per cent next year and 90 per cent by 2026.

But for members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Ontario government’s decision to drag its feet on releasing the crucial data amounted to a “disrespectful” partnership.

“When we’re talking with the ministry and the province about nation to nation and reconciliation, if we can’t even get a minister to answer our letters, it speaks to the commitment of the government,” said Aamjiwnaang’s environment coordinator Sharilyn Johnston.

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