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A visit to the 'ground zero' of the Great Lakes

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Yesterday afternoon National Chairperson Maude Barlow, Regional Organizer Mark Calzavara, London Chapter activists Gary Brown and Don McLeod and I arrived in Sarnia for our fifth stop of the Great Lakes Need Great Friends tour. We spent the afternoon seeing a part of Sarnia that the typical tourist doesn't see. Ron Plain, an activist from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, lead the five of us on a ‘toxic tour' of Sarnia which is also known as Chemical Valley. Our first stop was the Shell compound, a massive cluster of facilities spanning many blocks.

Ron showed us the Suncor facilities that processes bitumen from the tar sands. The Suncor facilities were the backdrop to the community's graveyard where family members and friends were buried, too many of whom have died of cancer. There were also tombstones of two pre-teens, one of which was a boy who suffered a bleeding nose and died suddenly a week after.

Suncor had planted small cedar trees along the barbed wire fences to improve air quality. However, a quick glance around at the looming facilities reveals Suncor's attempt is inane. There are 62 oil, gas or chemical facilities surrounding the Aamjiwnaang community within a 25 kilometre radius.

We visited the Dow Wetlands which despite Dow's claim that they've decontaminated the area, there are still concerns about remaining chemicals in the area. The toxic tour brought us to two bodies of water that were designated by Aamjiwnaang First Nation as toxic. A sign was posted warning the community: "Keep Out Talfourd Creek contains toxic substances known to cause serious health risks." Children who can't read the sign and end up playing in the creek have come out with boils on their skin. The sign is posted by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation because the government has failed to properly warn people of the toxic risk the creeks pose.

Throughout the tour we passed the day care, a basketball court and people's homes that were right next to the facilities. One man has been told not to have BBQs or fires on his property because of the proximity of his home to a chemical facility and the risk of explosions. We passed what they call seniors' island but we were struck with how few seniors there were living in the community. The average life expectancy in the community is 55 years of age.

While we were there, one of the flares at NOVA Chemicals was spewing black smoke. We could smell the fumes in the air and even taste them in our mouths. The black smoke, headed towards the Aamjiwnaang community and Sarnia, was a stark contrast to the beautiful blue sky dotted with white clouds.

After the emotional yet moving toxic tour, we went to the community to meet Ada Lockridge, Arnold Yellowman, Wilson Plain and other members of the community to hear their experiences of living in Chemical Valley. We then had a dinner meeting with activists from Sarnia, Windsor and Michigan.

In the evening, over 100 people gathered to hear our speakers talk about pollution in Sarnia. Ron opened the evening with a compelling, sad and eye-opening account of his experience fighting the petrochemical industry in Sarnia. Justin Duncan, an environmental lawyer from Ecojustice, gave an informative and hard-hitting presentation on the petrochemical industry in Sarnia and the legal case against Suncor and the Ontario government. Ecojustice, representing Ron and Ada, is alleging that the Ministry of the Environment's "ongoing approval of pollution in Sarnia violates Ada and Ron's basic human rights under sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - their rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to equality."

Maude was last to speak and told the audience about the afternoon spent on the toxic tour and how heartbreaking yet moving it was. She emphasized a real need for us to come together to fight environmental and social injustices as epitomized in Sarnia. As Maude told the Sarnia Observer, "Sarnia is ground zero with everything that is wrong. It is the perfect example to highlight wanton industrial abuse."

To see photos of our trip to Sarnia, click here.

Next stop will be the home of Site 41, Tiny Township, on Monday. More to come.

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