Ontario orders styrene plant to reduce benzene emissions, suspends ECA   

benzene protests
Dozens of residents in the small First Nation community of 900 said they recently became sick after a spike in readings for benzene, a known carcinogen. Photo Credit: Center for International Environmental Law

Ontario has suspended the environmental compliance approval for INEOS Styrolution, a plastics chemical company located near the Aamjiwnaang First Nation band office in Sarnia, Ontario, following a spike in benzene emissions at the plant.  

The high levels of benzene led to the closure of the Aamjiwnaang’s Band Office and community services buildings, including their daycare and resource centre. Dozens of residents in the small First Nation community of 900 said they recently became sick after a spike in readings for benzene, a known carcinogen. The company uses the chemical to create styrene, the raw material in polystyrene, often utilized for products such as food take-out containers.  

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks told media that INEOS Styrolution must undertake several actions as amendments to its environmental compliance approval (ECA), including the removal of all benzene storage from the site, the repair of leaky equipment and installation of full vapour control on vessels containing benzene, and the development of a comprehensive benzene monitoring and community notification plan.  

Provincial compliance orders were issued against the company for elevated benzene levels earlier in April, prior to the suspension of the environmental compliance approval.  

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“[…] The continuing and excessive discharge of benzene from INEOS Styrolution’s Sarnia facility is putting the members of Aamjiwnaang at elevated adverse health risks, is causing immediate health impacts on members, and is impacting the ability of Aamjiwnaang’s members to exercise their inherent and constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights,” Aamjiwnaang First Nation declared in a state of emergency notice on April 25.  

Owners of the INEOS site, which is currently closed for maintenance, said that they have five air monitors at the plant site. All benzene emissions have been within acceptable limits, plant management told local media.  

Additionally, no staff at INEOS has fallen ill, the company said in a statement. Plant management did, however, note that there could be “temporary spikes” in benzene levels during some stages of the plant’s shutdown.  

“[…] Ensuring the health and safety of our employees and communities is paramount,” INEOS officials announced in a statement.  

INEOS has also stated that it will be appealing the province’s decisions at the Ontario Lands Tribunal. 

Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has set the annual average limit for benzene at 0.45 ug/m3; however, testing from Clean Air Sarnia and Area (CASA) has air quality readings that surpassed 100 ug/m3 for benzene.

Following Ontario’s action, Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Steven Guilbeault issued an Interim Order on May 16 that calls for “fully closed vent systems with vapour control on certain storage tanks that store benzene” if fenceline concentrations of the chemical exceeded 29 μg/m3 during recent sampling periods. The order will be in effect for 14 days, for all Sarnia petrochemical facilities, pending Governor in Council approval, which could extend the order for up to two years, the department announced.  

“It is simply unacceptable that the people of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Sarnia face ongoing issues with poor air quality,” Guilbeault announced in a statement. “Indigenous peoples have a right to a healthy environment and too often are impacted by polluting industries,” he added. 

Guilbeault highlighted new draft regulations that target emissions from total volatile organic compounds, including benzene, within Canada’s petrochemical industry. The regulations would set a timeline to install abatement equipment and further reduce air pollution from hundreds of sources across Canada. 

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