"When I think back, I wish we'd never come to Sarnia," says resident
Jean Simpson in the opening of Pamela Calvert's 2007 documentary, "The
"My dad had a choice at the time, but they
thought Sarnia was Imperial Oil, they thought wow, this is a big oil
city - and it was, there was a lot of work here. When we got off the
train down at the station, and they took us down to where we lived in
Bluewater, my mother couldn't get over it, she said it was just so
beautiful, it was like a fairyland. Then when you woke up the next
morning, the stink from the plants was enough to knock you over. It was
terrible. But she always thought with the lights at night it looked like
The fairyland turned out to be a long-term
ecological and medical nightmare for the workers in Sarnia's Chemical
Valley and for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (Chippewa), which is
bordered on three sides by petrochemical plants.
The Blue Water
Sierra Club and St. Clair County Community College's Green Team
sponsored the screening of the movie in SC4's Fine Arts Auditorium last
Stunning data emerging from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in
Sarnia in 2004 sparked Calvert's interest in making the movie. For more
than a decade, beginning in 1993, Aamjiwnaang women had been giving
birth to girls at a rate of 2:1 times more than boys. The standard ratio
is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. Researchers suspected the sex
disparity in births and high cancer rate in the area were linked to
pervasive chemicals in the Valley known as endocrine disruptors, which
cause disorders in the messages delivered by the reproductive hormones
that guide human development.
This is one of very few pieces of
hard evidence in the film. Among the others: 39 percent of Aamjiwnaang
women experience miscarriages or stillbirths compared to the Canadian
average of 25 percent. Twenty-three percent of Aamjiwnaang children have
learning disabilities compared to 4 percent of the general Canadian
population. One Aamjiwnaang woman in the movie, Sandy Kinert, had the
highest amount of toxins in her body of any Canadian in the
Environmental Defence 2006 national study of 68 toxins. The study found
30 carcinogens and 31 reproductive/developmental toxins in her blood and
urine. Her granddaughter, 14, had 12 hormone disruptors and 17
reproductive toxins in her body.
"The city has already lost a
generation of men to workplace-related cancers," said Calvert in an
online interview about the film. "Now the women are discovering a
reproductive time bomb - because of their own exposure to a cluster of
hormone-mimicking chemicals called 'endocrine disruptors,' the next
generation may be at risk."
Instead of numbers, the film tells
the story of Sarnia residents, especially women, white and Indian,
spearheading a movement to clean up the local environment, stop the
building of future petrochemical plants and to embark on a systematic
study of the impact of Chemical Valley on residents and workers.
one horrific scene, a woman takes two frozen puppies out of her freezer
that died of respiratory problems after her dog, who played in the
nearby woods and presumably drank from a contaminated creek, was in
labor 14 hours. One was born without ears, fur and eyes and had feet
"I'm waiting for someone, maybe from Guelph
University, to come and analyze them," she says, putting them back in
their freezer bag. "Are our grandchildren going to be playing in that
Calvert's focus on stories instead of data gives her
movie a power it wouldn't have otherwise possessed. It also underlines
the importance of "the precautionary principle," outlined by Dr.
Margaret Keith, former occupational health research coordinator of
Ontario Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Inc. of Sarnia-Lambton, who
participated in the panel discussion following the screening. The idea
is that when human and environmental welfare is at stake, protective
action should take precedence over ironclad scientific proof. The
precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof to people or
corporations embarking on the threatening action, not on the potential
victims of the action.
"I think we already have enough evidence,"
said Keith. "It's a public health issue. I don't know why we need a
body count to stop poisoning people."
"There are substantial
bodies of evidence on every chemical used and produced in Sarnia," said
panelist Dr. Jim Brophy, retired director of Ontario Health Clinics of
For Ontario Workers, Inc. of Sarnia Lambton, who appeared in the film.
"How many leukemia victims do you need before you stop exposing people
In addition to Keith and Brophy, the post-film panel
included Ada Lockridge, an Aamjiwnaang community organizer, also in the
film; Dean Edwardson, representing the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental
Association, a group made up of Chemical Valley petrochemical companies
such as Shell, Suncor, Bayer and Dow Canada; Kristen Jurs, stormwater
coordinator for the St. Clair County Health Department; and Doug Martz,
who heads the Macomb County Water Quality Board.
facing in this story of real heroes and activists is a story about our
lack of democracy and control to shape the environment in which we
live," said Brophy.
The larger issue, he added, is that the
unrestrained production of greenhouse gases is making our planet
unsustainable. It doesn't matter that leaders of the petrochemical
plants live and raise their families in Sarnia. That's the irony. The
poisoning of Sarnia and the world can take place without malicious men
and women running these companies.
"We're driven by an economic dynamic that threatens the whole world," he said.
noted the industry has been doing a better job at curtailing spills and
emissions, but breaches are basically inevitable.
"As long as
you have these plants, you will have fugitive emissions," Edwardson
said. "You get them down as low as you can and manage them the best you
Jurs pointed to the limitations of St. Clair County Health Department in issues pertaining to water quality.
don't have jurisdiction over drinking water," she said, pointing to
federal and state governments, working through the local water plants.
"The only drinking water we have jurisdiction over is well water."
"Is it safe to swim in the river?" an audience member asked.
None of the panelists gave a straight-forward answer.
do a limited amount of e coli monitoring at our beaches," said Jurs.
"But we do no chemical monitoring. We barely have the budget to monitor
for e coli.
What can be done?
residents in southeast Michigan to call on their county and national
representatives, including Rep. Candice Miller, to continue to fund the
Drinking Water Protection Network at a cost of 25 cents per person. The
network tests for 28 chemicals and looks at seven water quality
parameters, in real time, in the water going into each of the 13 water
plants between Port Huron and Wyandotte. It notifies operators further
down the line of spills. It allows water plant operators to make
immediate decisions about treating their water in the event of
contamination, including shutting intake valves. Even though there have
been more than 700 reported chemical spills in the St. Clair River since
1986, the Black Out spills of 2003 - when five days lapsed before
citizens and plants were notified - and the Super Bowl spill of 2004
provided the impetus to initiate the system, combined with national
security concerns flowing from Sept. 11, 2001.
urged residents to join environmental groups and make their concerns
known to legislators and corporations: "Say it out loud."
don't think industry will do anything until they are forced to by the
government," said Keith, the provincial occupational health research
coordinator. "Nothing will happen until there is a huge groundswell of
demand... Become well informed. Start or join a group... You need
coalitions pushing for change."
The title of the movie invokes
Dr. Martin Luther King's concept of "the beloved community," in which
all people are integrated and interrelated in a society of brotherhood
and mutuality, transcending race, class, tribe and nationhood.
King spoke about The Beloved Community as a reachable goal for human
society in the here and now," said director Calvert. "Not conflict-free,
not heaven, but a global condition in which simple human decency makes
hunger and hate (and dare I say toxic exposure) simply unthinkable, and
in which conflicts are resolved amicably but decisively on the side of