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Great Lakes Article:

Wallaceburg sick of its poisoned water
Residents fed up after 3 chemical spills in 6 months
By Kate Harries
Ontario Star

WALLACEBURG-Nestled in the rich delta lands of the St. Clair River, this is a community that works hard and plays hard.

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.

No more.

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 in Toronto.

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 it."

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 Wallaceburg.

"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," he said.

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 Oil.

"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 said.

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 SWAT team.

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 industry.

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 in Sarnia.

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 added.

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."

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