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Chemical Alley

If you were to do an online search using the terms "chemical alley" or "chemical valley" you'd come up with references to a number of places in North America, ranging from an area near the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey, to Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans (better known to locals as "Cancer Alley"), to an area along the St. Clair River south of Sarnia, Ontario. It is this latter location, home to forty percent of Canada's chemical industry and Ontario's worst air pollution, that this site addresses.

A note on terms: while the media seem to prefer the term "Chemical Valley" for the concentration of chemical industries on the outskirts of Sarnia, "Chemical Alley" seems more apt, and it is what we use here. Two reasons: the land along the river is flat - i.e., no valley - and the river is very much like an alley between polluting industries on both sides, albeit a very beautiful alley.

No one is more adversely affected by the toxic chemicals released into the environment near Sarnia than the residents of the Aamjiwinaang First Nations Reserve - sandwiched between industries both to the south and the north. The workers at nearby plants may be wearing bio-hazard suits, but not the residents.

As an introduction to the subject, the following has been excerpted from “Toxic World, Troubled Minds” (© Varda Burstyn and David Fenton, published in No Child Left Different, Sharna Olfman, editor. Praeger, 2005).

Port Huron, Michigan, sits just across the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia, Ontario. The St. Clair River flows between them, carrying the waters of the Great lakes - Michigan, Superior and Huron - south. From Sarnia and Port Huron past the recreational shores of Lake St. Clair to the industrialized southern reaches of Detroit, the St. Clair water system picks up the wastes of one of the most highly industrialized regions of the world. Eventually it discharges these into Lake Erie just north of Toledo, Ohio. One of the largest installations of petrochemical plants on the continent, Sarnia hosts, among many others, Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil (Exxon), Shell, Dupont and Dow Chemical. Twenty of its plants produce daily emissions that are large enough that they must be reported to Environment Canada’s national registry of pollution releases. In the 1980s the so-called “Sarnia Blob” of toxic chemicals was discovered in the St. Clair River, and the river is one of the sites where federal scientists have found wildlife with blurred sexual characteristics. Just as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio send their toxic airborne fuel emissions north and east to cover a territory that ranges from Windsor to Quebec City, sometimes for weeks at a time, gagging Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as well, so Sarnia sends its harsh, concentrated pollution south, down the river to the US. Pollution doesn’t recognize borders.

On the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve just south of Sarnia, quite literally in the midst of those petrochemical installations, children play on lawns and suburban streets. Yet less than one hundred yards away at the plants, the workers have been dressed for some years in bio-hazard suits. And in recent years the community has begun to figure out why: the birth of girls outnumbers the birth of boys two to one, and the ratio continues to worsen; women have been reporting multiple miscarriages; and many children are having problems with normal sexual development. As in other jurisdictions, these frightening problems have gone hand-in-hand with an equally frightening phenomenon: a striking rise in problems in children's neurological development and mental health. Large numbers of children at the local elementary school have below average intelligence, developmental delays, learning deficits and behavioral problems. Living in the shadow of a toxic industry may be a worst-case situation, but it would be a mistake to believe that anyone not surrounded by chemical plants or directly living in their plumes is safely out of harm's way. Scientific investigations have repeatedly shown us that through many forms of dispersal, the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) these plants produce have been carried to the remotest places on earth, and that we all carry them in our bloodstreams. Science has also demonstrated that extremely low levels of these toxicants can cause significant, life-long damage to children's sexual, neurological and immunological development, especially when they affect fetuses, infants and toddlers…

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