The Chemical Valley of Sarnia

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These tall chimneys billowing thick, toxic smoke stand on the banks of the Saint Clair River, on the outskirts of the Canadian city of Sarnia, in Southwestern Ontario. Stretching for over 30 kilometers along the riverbank from the southern tip of Lake Huron to the village of Sombra, this region has been nicknamed the Chemical Valley, because of the large concentration of petroleum and chemical factories that are packed together here, elbow-to-elbow, within an area the size of a hundred city blocks. Sarnia’s Chemical Valley is home to sixty-two chemical plants accounting for nearly 40 percent of Canada's chemical industry. These industrial complexes are the heart of Sarnia's infrastructure and economy, creating —directly and indirectly— more than fifty thousand jobs in the area.

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Photo credit: P199/Wikimedia

The roots of Chemical Valley date to the mid 19th century, when oil was discovered just south of Sarnia and the country’s first commercial wells were dug in the villages of Petrolia and Oil Springs. The abundance of crude and its proximity to Detroit, Chicago and Toronto made it the ideal location for a petrochemical center. When the Second World War began, and Japan occupied Southeast Asia, where most of the world’s natural rubber came from, it became crucial for the Allies to find an alternate source. Time being scarce, a decision was taken to produce synthetic rubber, and Sarnia was chosen as the site for the plant. Sarnia was located near crude oil fields —the raw material needed for production of synthetic rubber, and there were already refineries there, which provided cheap means of transportation for both raw materials and products. Besides, large quantities of low temperature water that is needed in the plant’s cooling system were easily accessible.

Within the first two years, the rubber factories were supplying all of Canada’s military and civilian needs for rubber. Production continued even after the war, and soon Canada was exporting its products and creating subsidiaries abroad. By the late 1960s, many of the largest oil and chemical companies in the world had built facilities in Chemical Valley and the economy boomed. The city had the highest standard of living in the country in the 1970s, with a per capita disposable income 35 percent greater than the national average. For many years, the image of Sarnia’s iconic skyline of chimneys graced the reverse of the Canadian $10 bill.

But Sarnia’s industrial success is taking a toll on its environment. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, Sarnia’s air is the most polluted in Canada. The dangerously high concentration of toxic chemicals in the air from chimney emissions and regular leaks are making residents sick. Cancer rates in Sarnia are 34% higher than the provincial average, mesothelioma rates five times higher and asbestosis rates an astounding nine times higher.

The worst affected is the First Nations reservation called Aamjiwnaang that sits, preposterously, right in the middle of Chemical Valley, surrounded on all sides by refineries and petroleum facilities that operate all round the clock, 365 days a year. Home to about 850 Chippewa, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reservation was originally a Chippewa hunting ground, but the area was turned into a First Nations reserve in 1827, after the British government snatched up an enormous amount of Native land. Today, it's one of the most poisonous locations in North America.

On the positive side, the air quality in Sarnia has improved in recent years, with 30 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide problems. The number of smog days in 2009 was also down to 5 from a record 46 in 2005.

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Photo credit: Ken/Flickr

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Photo credit: Jon Lin Photography/Flickr

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Photo credit: Garth Lenz

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Photo credit: Jon Lin Photography/Flickr

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Photo credit: Jon Lin Photography/Flickr

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Photo credit: Toban B/Flickr

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The north-western border of the Aamjiwnaang native reserve. Photo credit: Toban B/Flickr

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A sign along the St. Clair river. Photo credit: Toban B/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Wikipedia / Sarnia Historical Society / Library and Archives Canada Blog / Environmental Justice Atlas / Chatelaine / Vice

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