Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants

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Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants


A government whistleblower claims the province’s environment ministry has for years failed to properly protect the Aamjiwnaang First Nation — whose ancestral land near Sarnia is surrounded by petroleum refineries and chemical plants — from potentially dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide air emissions due to “systemic discrimination” that includes yielding to “secretive” industry lobbying to relax compliance standards.

Scott Grant, 56, is a senior combustion and air pollution engineer at the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. He alleges that top-level ministry managers have withheld technical and scientific information about sulphur dioxide impacts and caved to industry interests while failing to properly consult Aamjiwnaang First Nation representatives — all of which Grant says puts residents at “unreasonable” health and safety risks in an area known as “Chemical Valley.”

Grant’s claims are contained in material supporting his Ontario Labour Relations Board grievance application filed in August against environment deputy minister Serge Imbrogno.

The 30-year ministry employee claims Imbrogno is responsible for workplace reprisals he experienced after confidentially disclosing discrimination concerns to Imbrogno in January. The ministry rejects both Grant’s allegations of systemic discrimination and his claims of workplace reprisals.

The grievance arbitration, submitted under the Public Service of Ontario Act, is scheduled for Thursday.

Grant says in his grievance that he previously submitted to senior ministry staff confidential claims of wrongdoing related to Aamjiwnaang First Nation; in 2009 (alleging “reckless” disregard for public safety) and 2014 (he claims two senior ministry managers “exhibited a discriminatory attitude” toward Aamjiwnaang). Grant asserts a “long-term pattern of ostracization” began in 2009, with senior management reassigning his engineering work.

The ministry, in a response to the labour board regarding Grant’s grievance, said there is “no suggestion that his employment has ever been adversely affected and, in particular: his employment with the ministry has not ended; there have been no threats to end his employment; he has not been subject to discipline nor any threats to impose discipline; he has not been subject to any penalty related to his employment nor any threats to impose any penalty; there has been no intimidation or coercion of him in relation to his employment; and his performance reviews have always been positive.”

Imbrogno, in Aamjiwnaang on Monday for a meeting the ministry requested with Chief Chris Plain, told the Star — who was also there — he won’t comment on internal human resources matters.

Surrounded by petroleum refineries and chemical plants, Aamjiwnaang First Nation is located near Sarnia in an area known as "Chemical Valley."

Grant began working directly with the Aamjiwnaang community in 2007 as part of his ministry duties to examine air quality. Today, he asserts residents are still not safe.

“I have come to the conclusion that this community has been placed at unreasonable risk of harm as a result of air pollution from nearby petroleum refineries and chemical plants,” he wrote in his grievance documents, referring to the industry’s use of acid gas flaring.

Petroleum refineries use acid gas flaring as a way to burn off excess sulphur from crude oil if that excess can’t be safely managed. Sulphur is removed from crude for products like gasoline and diesel fuels.

In a summary of his grievance filed with the labour board, Grant wrote “dangerous acid gas flaring practices” that discharge sulphur dioxide into the air expose “sensitive individuals” such as the young, elderly or asthmatics to a range of potential respiratory troubles.

In January, Grant wrote to Imbrogno — who is also the ministry’s ethics executive — to report what he described as ministry “wrongdoing related to the systemic discrimination against the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.” One of Grant’s key concerns: the ministry’s new regulation 530/18, enacted last December, that he claims exempts the petroleum industry from making substantive efforts to minimize the number of flarings until 2023. He also alleges Aamjiwnaang representatives were not consulted in developing the regulation.

In Ontario, currently there is no limit to how many times a plant can flare, however, under the new regulation, facilities may be fined for exceeding within a 24-hour period sulphur dioxide emission amounts set by the ministry.

Grant claims Imbrogno gave his disclosure a “negative response” in a three-page letter dated Feb. 11 and, despite being what he calls a “leader in the field of air pollution engineering and program development,” Grant says a pattern of exclusion and ostracization followed. He cites an “unlawful” reprisal example as being excluded from meetings and engineering work related to his career expertise.

In that Feb. 11 letter to Grant, Imbrogno defended the new acid gas flaring regulation as effective. Imbrogno wrote “… the ministry’s view is that the regulation will not increase the risk of harm to the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nation communities.”

The deputy minister also stated in the letter that petroleum industry experts were closely involved with the ministry in crafting the proposed 530/18 regulation and that First Nations’ concerns were “considered in finalizing the regulation.”

“More detailed discussions with representatives from petroleum refineries occurred to ensure the proposed legislation was technically sound,” wrote Imbrogno, who also refuted Grant’s allegations of systemic discrimination. “In specific regard to O. Reg. 530/18,” he wrote in the letter, “I can assure you its development was in no way motivated by discriminatory views against Indigenous communities.”

Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler said in an email to the Star that: “The ministry takes concerns about air quality in Sarnia and across Ontario very seriously and has strong protections in place to regulate air contaminants released by various sources, including industrial and commercial facilities.” Wheeler also stated the ministry “has worked closely for several years with both the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nations communities to enhance their engagement in air monitoring and air quality in the Sarnia area.”

Chief Plain said his community has been proactive in developing relationships with the ministry and the petroleum industry and together, environmental protection gains have been made.

However, Plain and his environmental co-ordinater, Sharilyn Johnston — a former environment ministry enforcement officer — said they are often frustrated by government foot-dragging on requests like enforcement of existing air quality standards, sharing air monitoring data, getting replies to correspondence and conducting sincere nation-to-nation consultations according to Aamjiwnaang’s established protocols.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation Chief Chris Plain said he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of government enforcement of air quality standards. "They listen but there's no willingness to express any kind of movement on these types of requests."

“Listening seems to be the easy part,” Plain said.

“They listen but there’s no willingness to express any kind of movement on these types of requests.”

Johnston, who calls Grant a “hero” and a “champion” of the Aamjiwnaang, said her community being excluded from developing the flaring regulation was “a big failure” by the environment ministry.

Johnston told the Star she had no idea the regulation was being created until she got a phone call from a ministry official in December of 2018. She said she was told the proposal was done, that it was being posted that same day and did she have any concerns before it became official?

“We didn’t really have any time to look at it,” she said, recalling the band office was closed for two weeks at the time.

“We called (back) and said ‘Here are our concerns,’ but that was way too late to ever be involved in the process,” Johnston continued.

“So when you talk about engagement and consultation and duty, that was a failure. And a big failure.”

Stephanie Montreuil, spokesperson for the Canadian Fuels Association, said in an email to the Star that the industry organization and its members “are proud of our relationship with Aamjiwnaang First Nation.”

“The community has been a strong advocate for improved air quality in the area as we work together toward increasingly improved industry environmental performance,” Montreuil said.

This Indigenous community of 2,500 trapped within one of Canada’s most polluted places has long been studied and assessed by environmental groups and government agencies, including provincial Environment commissioners and the United Nations.

Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, toured parts of Canada this summer, including the Sarnia area.

He described Aamjiwnaang’s situation as “deeply unsettling,” with more than 60 industrial facilities on three sides of the community “that create the physiological and mental stress among community members regarding the risk of impending explosions or other disasters, as well as a wide variety of health impacts from unquestionably poisonous chronic exposures.”

Tuncak also wrote: “It is acknowledged that existing regulations do not protect the health of Aamjiwnaang.”

Toronto lawyer David Donnelly represents Grant in his grievance application. He said Grant’s grievance “confirms that senior bureaucrats have consistently failed to protect this community by not allowing scientists and engineers to do their job to protect human health and the environment.”

“We need to dig deeper and discover exactly why,” Donnelly said.

Grant seeks two “remedies” in his settlement-by-arbitration hearing.

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First, he’s asking for $186,000 “to repair the harm caused by the unlawful reprisals.” Then, he wants the ministry to begin discussions with him and Aamjiwnaang representatives “with the goal of providing capacity funding and to develop a program” that would grant authority to Aamjiwnaang to enforce Ontario air pollution requirements that impact their territory, rather than the ministry.

And if the arbitrator dismisses his financial request but supports a path toward Aamjiwnaang’s autonomy to protect their land?

“I’d be happier than hell,” Grant said in an interview.

“My goal is to ensure a meaningful nation-to-nation discussion.”

Plain said the prospect of Aamjiwnaang becoming its own environmental protection authority is desired.

“The magic-wand wish is we do it ourselves,” the chief said.

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The grass, even in October, is still deeply green in Aamjiwnaang’s cemetery. Sprays of fresh flowers adorn gravesites. Older tombstones, smaller and bare, date back to the late 1800s, their chiselled letters worn smooth from the elements.

This sacred ground was once a serene place for mourning, reflection and remembrance. But that was before petroleum and chemical industries began moving into the area about 70 years ago, eventually cramming three sides of the cemetery with buildings, mammoth containment tanks, twisting tangles of pipes, lights, trucks and cars.

There’s a towering acid gas stack around the corner from the cemetery. In the event of an acid gas flare, a cloud of sulphur dioxide would discharge in that area, which is also close to a street of tidy homes.

Acid gas stacks are peppered around Aamjiwnaang lands. Chief Chris Plain says the stacks flare “frequently,” and he doesn’t have to see the flaring to know it’s happening.

“One just happened last week,” said Plain.

“We can feel it. We can hear it. Our houses shake, the foundations shake. You can feel the vibration in your house.”

Beyond air pollution worries, industry noise compounds the list of environmental concerns in Aamjiwnaang.

Sharilyn Johnston, environmental co-ordinater for Aamjiwnaang First Nation Chief Chris Plain, alleges the environment ministry excluded her community when it developed a recent acid gas flaring regulation, calling it "a big failure."

At the cemetery, there is no silence. Noise from an adjacent pipeline facility blares like a fleet of enormous big rigs whose horns shriek, non-stop. There’s also a distinct oscillation; the whup-whup-whup of machinery spills over the cemetery grounds.

Sharilyn Johnston said constant industrial noise is part of the cumulative effects of environmental pollution in her community, just as air, water and soil are affected by industry contaminants. She said residents complain their traditional ways, such as holding fasting camps, sweat lodges or meditations, are disturbed.

“It affects our lifestyle, you can’t enjoy your land,” she said. “It impacts our culture and practices that sustain our community,” she said. “It’s hard to find those little spots where it’s quiet, for contemplation.”

Grant said he has worked closely with the Aamjiwnaang community on air pollution control issues for nearly a decade. He said that experience taught him what true consultation with First Nations means.

“Aamjiwnaang have a (consultation) protocol they developed and it is about listening — and listening to a variety of members of their community,” Grant said in an interview.

“It’s about giving them an opportunity to ask questions … it’s not just talking to Sharilyn and her team but also the chief, his council, the environment committee and individual groups like the elders and the mothers’ group.”

Grant said “it became clear very quickly there is a long history of their love for the land, their connection to the land and their community.”

“It wasn’t just a permit we were looking at or giving an approval for some industrial proposal; it was ‘How does this truly impact the community (who had) been excellent stewards of the land for literally thousands of years?’ ” he said. “We need to respect that.”

“Mr. Grant did not set out to become a whistleblower,” said lawyer David Donnelly, noting Grant’s action will cost him friends in industry and government.

“But the call to act in the name of truth and reconciliation overcame his allegiance to a ministry and system he’d been loyal to for nearly three decades.”

Grant will retire at the end of this year. He applied for and received a civil servant exit incentive. He said the alleged reprisals were “a key aspect” in his decision to go.

In an interview, he said he realizes some people, including colleagues, might think he is simply a disgruntled employee, but he insists that’s not true.

“At this stage of life, you want to do things you feel good about.”





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