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A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is located across the road from a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ont. (Craig Glover/The Canadian Press)
A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is located across the road from a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ont. (Craig Glover/The Canadian Press)

Chemical Valley health issues prompt lawsuit against Queen's Park Add to ...

An embattled first nations community situated in the heart of Ontario's Chemical Valley will announce a landmark lawsuit Monday morning targeting the province's role in long-standing health problems throughout the town and neighbouring city of Sarnia.

Residents of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation will join lawyers and scientists from Ecojustice - formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund - in launching the legal action at Queen's Park.

Ecojustice is spearheading the suit which relates to a decades-long battle to convince the province that the cumulative emissions of 67 industrial facilities is to blame for the high rate of several medical conditions in the region.

"We've been strategizing on this action for eight years," said Ron Plain, the most prominent environmental activist among the 850 Aamjiwnaang members. "The [Ministry of Environment]has talked about doing something for years and they still aren't doing it."

Officials from Ecojustice were tight-lipped regarding specifics of the legal action, but spokesman Kori Brus did say it would mark "phase one in a long-term series of developments in the area."

Ministry of Environment officials would not comment specifically on the pending legal action.

"We do need to do more to protect and improve Sarnia's environment and find ways to better understand the combined effects of emissions," said ministry spokeswoman Kate Jordan in an e-mail. "That's why we are developing long-term, science-based tools to better support the considerations of cumulative effects in environmentally significant decisions."

The valley is home to a plethora of unusual medical phenomena. Perhaps the best-known oddity came from a 2005 study that found mothers in the area around Sarnia were giving birth to an unusually high proportion of girls. An investigation of sex ratios on the reserve found that roughly two girls were born for every boy.

Some researchers surmised that gender-bending industrial pollutants could be to blame.

Other studies have found that area residents are hospitalized twice as often for cardiovascular and respiratory problems as their counterparts in nearby London, Ont.

Aamjiwnaang residents regularly report nausea from noxious fumes wafting through town.

Environmentalists say that no one company is to blame. While the province sets strict criteria for single contaminants, it does not account for what might happen when they mix in human tissue over a long period. The interaction of such compounds is poorly understood, and researchers have yet to prove a direct link between industrial pollutants and many health problems in the area.

"The whole issue of cumulative effects is very complex," said Dean Edwardson, general manager of the Lambton-Sarnia Environmental Association, a group financed by several Chemical Valley firms. "There can be one compound and one emitter, or several compounds and several emitters. It's not something you can easily wrap your head around."

Several community groups have been conducting a health survey of the region for about four years. Even if that work fingers a specific industrial pollutant, border issues may impede mitigation efforts.

"People often don't realize that 50 per cent of our air stream comes from across the line in the Ohio River Valley, which presents a whole new set of issues" said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, pointed out that Sarnia has made great strides in improving its environmental image.

The region is now home to the world's biggest solar farm and air quality has improved greatly in recent years. "This is not the Sarnia of the seventies, eighties and nineties," Mr. Bradley said. "That doesn't mean we can't do more."

 

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