Wallaceburg sick of its poisoned
Residents fed up after 3 chemical spills in 6 months
By Kate Harries
WALLACEBURG-Nestled in the rich delta lands of the St.
Clair River, this is a community that works hard and plays
Industries flourish on the banks of the fast-flowing
waters that transport goods around the Great Lakes.
Boaters, hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts enjoy
the surrounding wetlands' bountiful fauna and flora. The
unique ecosystem includes 45 species not found anywhere
else in Canada.
And for years, the toxins that flowed into the many tributaries
that run through and around this town of 11,000 were seen
as the cost of doing business.
Last week, as the town's water supply was closed for
the third time in six months, councillor Chip Gordon said
he'll be taking a clear message to the provincial government
on Tuesday when a delegation from Chatham Kent, along
with a representative of the Walpole Island First Nation,
are to meet with Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky
Locals want a firewall of protective measures to guard
against contamination from Chemical Valley, the massive
petrochemical complex that stretches north of here to
Sarnia, Gordon said, explaining succinctly: "Two
years max, complete separation, don't care how you do
Gordon and others reject suggestions that a pipeline
that takes water from Lake Huron to communities along
the river as far as nearby Port Lambton be extended to
"That's not the answer," he said. "Because
that tells them you can just keep on dumping in the water."
Kevin Cavanagh, owner of a local funeral home and president
of the Wallaceburg Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
"It's part of our food chain because we hunt and
we fish, it's our supply chain with regard to industry,"
Reliable water and an attractive environment are among
the assets the town is relying on to rebuild its economic
base in the face of devastating plant closures in recent
years, the most recent being Oxford Automotive, closing
its doors on 700 workers next month.
The town's water intake was closed Feb. 16 after a Dow
Chemicals analyzer detected volatile organic compounds,
presumably from a spill upriver, on Monday.
Dow Chemical engineer Catharine Creber said Friday that
further tests showed the mysterious chemical - at first
thought to be highly toxic ethylene oxide - was in fact
a mix of three less dangerous hydrocarbons: pentane, butane
and t-methyl butane.
That doesn't mollify locals.
The town's water supply almost failed this month, after
the intake was closed for four days by a spill Feb. 1
of 150,000 litres of industrial solvents from Imperial
"The Imperial spill came perilously close to shutting
down our industry," Cavanagh said. For auto parts
plants that supply Windsor's automobile manufacturers
on just-in-time delivery contracts, the failure could
have been catastrophic.
"If you shut down one of the Big Three, you could
be charged thousands of dollars a minute," Cavanagh
The Imperial Oil spill prompted Dombrowsky to promise
"zero tolerance" for polluters and send in her
crack troops - some 30 inspectors in the ministry's environmental
Members have spent the past two weeks studying legislation
and regulations governing each of the Chemical Valley
plants and looking at best practices in other jurisdictions.
Unannounced inspections by teams of up to 15 officials
may start next week, said unit supervisor Mike Benedict.
They expect to be in the area for months.
Wallaceburg residents say enforcement means very little
when the legislation isn't strict enough after years of
complacency under the Tory government
"The companies themselves are even asking to be
on a level playing field and get clear consistent guidelines
from the ministry of the environment," Cavanagh said.
But he questioned whether the provincial Liberals will
address the issue, noting there's at least one member
of cabinet who has been closely connected to the petrochemical
Finance Minister Greg Sorbara was a director of Woodbridge-based
Royal Group Technologies until he resigned last October
after the Liberals came to power. Royal Polymers, part
of the Royal Group, came under fire last August when it
took five days to report a vinyl chloride spill in the
St. Clair River. It was the first of three incidents that
closed the town's water supply."And the fines would
have a lot more teeth if they weren't tax-deductible,"
Cavanagh added, pointing to a record $750,000 fine was
imposed two years ago on Nova Chemicals, for a 2000 spill
that made workers and nearby residents dizzy and nauseated.
That was deductible as a cost of doing business under
a section of the Income Tax Act that a 1999 Supreme Court
ruling found applies to all fines except in cases of unusually
"egregious or repulsive" breaches of the law.
Cavanagh expressed skepticism about the likelihood of
Ottawa closing the loophole.
A spokesperson for the department of finance said Ottawa
is examining the possibility of introducing new restrictions
on the deductibility of fines.
Residents say they are also frustrated at a lack of communication
from the environment ministry.
The ministry has provided no information to the community
about its investigation of the Royal Polymers spill six
months ago, said Bela Trebics, a member of a local environmental
group and co-chair of the Binational Public Advisory Council,
a body set up under the International Joint Commission
after the St. Clair River was listed as one of 43 "area
of concern" sites around the Great Lakes.
Trebics said he was offended by the fact that officials
from the environment ministry said they were too busy
to attend a public meeting held by the council last Tuesday
The recent spills have set back by years the efforts
of residents on both sides of the border to get the St.
Clair "delisted" as an area of concern, Trebics
Environment ministry spokesperson John Steele said the
ministry did have a local consultant represent them at
the meeting. He said the ministry does try to meet with
locals "but we're limited in what we can say about
an investigation, for obvious reasons."