The Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario in Canada is a place of awe in the worst way possible. With over 60 petrochemical plants in a 25 kilometer square area along the St. Clair river, it earned the title of "most polluted air in Canada" by the World Health Organization in 2011. As I am digging into more and more information, reports, articles, and accounts of live in Chemical Valley, it's easy to think: "how could this happen?" but then I also think, "how could it not?". Modern life depends on the chemicals and products processed in Chemical Valley- we've all created and contribute to this problem, but we all don't live with its impact equally.
One of the most disheartening aspects of research into Chemical valley are the accounts of members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve and blue collar workers of Sarnia's petrochemical industry. Both of these groups endure prolonged and dangerous levels of exposure to chemicals emitted by the industrial complex, causing devastating health issues and death. This follows a trend of industry locating in places where neighbors are poor or minority communities, forcing already oppressed bodies to then bear the brunt of modern society's pollution. Stories of cancer and other health issues plague Chemical Valley's closest neighbors and workers, but are often brushed off as anecdotal evidence or not having clear causal relationships to their nearby mega-polluting neighbor.
Ecojustice's 2007 report on Chemical valley called for more monitoring of air emissions and pollution around Chemical Valley, spurring the creation of an air monitoring station in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve. Activist residents like Ada Lockridge also take testing into their own hands, with a DIY air-testing kit called a Bucket Brigade. More recently, in 2019, a collaboration between University of Toronto and the Aamjiwnaang Environmental committee produced an indigenous-led pollution reporter app that allows users to report pollution events as well as learn about specific chemicals that are emitted in Chemical valley, who are the polluters of these chemicals, and what health impacts they cause. While significant data infrastructure has been put in place over the last several years to be able to better monitor and monitor in a more balanced way (not relying on unreliable industry to monitor and share data on emissions), there still remains the issue of cumulative exposure. There is a connectedness to this data that is missing. The Pollution Reporter attempted to bridge the connectedness gap between specific chemicals, the health issues they cause, and the polluters who emit the chemicals in Chemical Valley, but understanding the cumulative impact or the relationship between multiple emitted chemicals the neighbors of Chemical Valley are exposed to still seems to present a challenge.
Chemical Valley has gotten a lot of media and public attention over the past 15 years with pollution reports from ecojustice in 2007 and 2019, a 30 min video documentary from VICE in 2013, and countless media articles and news series. In addition to the narrative of Chemical Valley told through traditional media outlets, I am also investigating the narrative that is shared through stories of the members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve. Oral histories and retrospective looks at the history of the Aamjiwnaang Reserve in Sarnia, paint an even more complex history of first nations people entangled with industry and encroachment. In direct juxtaposition are the narratives of the petrochemical industry, providing employment and an important tax base and 'doing their best to be good neighbors,' like keeping emissions under limits and warning neighboring communities of pollution incidents or spills. Sometimes these narratives overlap nicely and align but more often they do not. The different ways we tell the story of Chemical Valley, creates completely different versions of the place itself.