Living in the shadow of Chemical Valley

‘All of a sudden, the air doesn’t smell right, or it can be hard to breathe.’
Petro-chemical industry in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, Ontario, Canada. Photo: P199/Wikimedia

Beze Gray is a two-spirit land and water defender from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The name Aamjiwnaang means “at the spawning stream.” Their reserve in Sarnia, Ontario, is situated awfully close to Chemical Valley.

As the name suggests, this area is filled with more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries emitting tonnes of air pollution to the communities situated nearby, which has concerning health and mental health impacts.

Gray is also one of seven youth who are suing the Ontario government over its climate change policy. Their lawsuit alleges that Ontario’s current weakening of its climate targets puts future generations at risk. The Ontario Superior Court heard the case last fall, but hasn’t yet rendered a decision.

Below, Gray talks about the impact that Chemical Valley has had on their community.

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Beze Gray

Beze Gray discusses the effects of living near Canada’s Chemical Valley.

I’m Beze, my pronouns are they/them. I grew up in Aamjiwnaang.

We still have 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry surrounding us. And what that looks like is over 60 facilities in a 25-kilometre radius, but 60 per cent of the highest emitters are in a five-kilometre radius. So we have a lot of industry, all the way around our community. Our community is really small — it’s only 850 people living on reserve.

It’s mainly oil production and the byproducts of oil. There’s so many things that come from oil, like different types of fuels, as well as plastics and rubbers, cleaning chemicals; all these different things come from these refineries. 

But we’re feeling the very major impacts of these refineries, because we get a spill almost every week — where it can be really intense, where all of a sudden, the air doesn’t smell right, or it can be hard to breathe. And that can be a symptom from being exposed to high flaring or a smokestack — they look like giant cigarettes in the sky. Because the government and local officials make up these things that you can be exposed to this much benzene, when really you shouldn’t be exposed to any benzene. And it really affects your health in the long term. 

I can speak about my own community and how it’s affected our health. It affected our birth ratio — we have two girls for every boy being born. So it is even impacting our reproductive health. And we have respiratory problems, and we have high cancers. You would never see this kind of refinery in Justin Trudeau’s backyard, or in Doug Ford’s. They’re placed here, because they want us to seem lower almost. We actually face the impact.

I would love to see a study happen for mental health in my community, because there’s thousands of chemicals put out in a day in Chemical Valley. They run like 365 days a year, and they don’t shut down like you would think. At some point, you’d think they would be off for a bit. They don’t — they run the whole time. 

We’re having constant noise in our communities where it’s so bad sometimes, like where they’re releasing a really big heavy flare. And it’s shaking some people’s windows. And they can’t sleep at night because of how close that flare is to their house. Or because of the brightness where there could be multiple flares going off, and it’s really bright in the community. And we don’t really get to see a lot of stars or anything in my community.

I’d like to see how that impacts our mental health on top of those chemicals and like, longer-term studies of what being exposed to any one of those chemicals that do cause mental health issues is doing to community members.

I would like to see a really big shift, where that refinery closes in my area, that would be really great. Even if Imperial could update some of their facilities that would create a bigger change. 

There’s so much that needs to happen for a lot of different communities — mine is just one example. But there needs to be a lot more happening for these communities that are facing environmental racism.

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What you can do

Watch: Canada’s Toxic Chemical Valley (Vice)
“Sarnia’s air is the most polluted air in Canada. There are more toxic air pollutants billowing out of smokestacks here than in all of the provinces of New Brunswick or Manitoba.”

Learn more about the climate change lawsuit: Mathur et. al. v. His Majesty in Right of Ontario
“Young people are especially at risk when it comes to climate threats because these risks will increase in the coming years if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. It’s their lives and lives of everyone who comes after them that will be forced to bear the costs of climate inaction more than previous generations.”

Support: Sign on to the climate change court submission (Ecojustice)
“Sophia, Zoe, Shaelyn, Shelby, Alex, Madison, and Beze — who brought this lawsuit on behalf of concerned Canadians — say that when the Ontario government weakened its climate targets it violated the constitutional right to life, liberty, and security of every person in Ontario.”


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