2017 Imperial Oil Flaring Investigation

At 6:15PM on February 23rd 2017, the Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization (CVECO) issued a Code 8 for an “internal abnormal occurrence” at the Imperial Oil facility. Fifteen minutes later, the sirens can be briefly heard going off in Chemical Valley to alert community members that something was wrong. Three Imperial Oil flare stacks were visibly burning bright as smoke filled the sky. The houses in Aamjiwnaang First Nation shook and vibrated. Community members reported hearing a loud hissing noise and feeling a burning sensation in their nostrils. 

The Imperial Oil refinery is the oldest and highest emitting company located in the Chemical Valley. The refinery is located up-stream from Aamjiwnaang along the St.Clair River in between the south end of the city of Sarnia and the reserve. A flare looks like flame coming from a pipe in the sky. Flaring happens everyday it is part of the plant operations to burn waste gases at petroleum refineries, chemical plants and natural gas processing plants. Flare stacks are used for burning off flammable gas released by pressure relief valves during unplanned over-pressuring of plant equipment.

That February had been unseasonably warm and lots of people were out in the parks enjoying the early evening. That Thursday evening, my younger sibling Beze and I were at a family dinner on Tashmoo Avenue on the reserve.

While sirens, flares and smoky air are common in Chemical Valley and although we have been through many shelter-in-place situations in Aamjiwnaang, this time felt, looked and sounded different. The flare was out of control and so bright that people across the river in Michigan said it looked like the refinery itself was on fire. The flares surrounded the plant and turned the sky bright orange. The flaring was caught on a grainy low quality cell phone video caught by a resident of Port Huron, which was then  circulated on social media, showed on the local news, and soon received national attention. The flaring continued for 10 days. We could see them burning bright from the Aamjiwnaang Band office,resource center, and our homes.

It's always risky to be close enough to document the incident. You risk further exposing yourself to the dangers of the unknown chemicals, but also risk being harassed by industry security claiming you're not allowed to be in the area. But even if you try to keep your distance, the refinery is unavoidable. The road in front of the Imperial Oil refinery is next to the most direct route to the closest hospital from Aamjiwnaang. The river flowing in the direction of Aamjiwnaang passes on the other side of the refinery. The Imperial Oil complex stretches all the way to the boundary of our reserve. 

Of the 60+ industrial facilities in Chemical Valley, a large number of them share a fence line surrounding the homes of our small community. Trees on the reserve include the sugar maple, sycamore, white oak, eastern white cedar, white birch, black walnut, and red oak. These and many more trees stand on the parts of the reservation where a bit of wildlife still exists, including species of concern and endangered species. The location of our reserve is also essential to bald eagles and many other birds who pass through on their migrations. Our identity as Anishinaabeg people is directly tied to the survival of the land and the wildlife that depends on the land as well.

The Investigation

In October 2017,  Dr. Elaine MacDonald from  environmental law charity Ecojustice, and I submitted an application for investigation to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario under section 74 of the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights. The application requests that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change investigate “Suspected Violations of the Ontario Environmental Protection Act and Ontario Regulation 419/05”. The application further alleges that Imperial Oil Limited at the Sarnia Manufacturing Site violated section 14 of the Environmental Protection Act by emitting contaminants that caused an adverse effect, and violated sections 45 and 46 of Air Pollutions- Locals Air Quality Act by emitting contaminants that caused discomfort to persons and loss of enjoyment of normal use of property..1Though an investigation of this type had few precedents, these alleged violations reflect industry’s consistent failure to comply with regulatory standards and claim responsibility for the effects of its activities on surrounding communities.

The flaring incident started on February 23rd at approximately 6:15pm. The alarms could be heard at 6:30pm and suddenly stopped. At 7:30pm, Imperial reported only a grass fire, to which Sarnia’s Fire and Rescue Services were called. At 8:30pm, an Aamjiwnaang resident complained to the Ministry about a strong odour of gas and oil in the area close to the community centre and daycare. The fire chief John Kingyens told CBC on February 24th 2017, “We had no information to offer anybody and we received a lot of requests. Our own credibility is at stake when we don’t have an answer for the public.” 2 On March 2nd and 3rd I published video footage of the ongoing flaring on social media. Imperial Oil retained a third-party consultant to monitor air quality from February 23rd to March 6th, but the results were never disclosed. Imperial used portable AreaRAE to conduct air monitoring on February 23rd; however, monitoring devices with high detection limits for hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as AreaRAE, are unable to detect ambient concentrations of these contaminants that far exceed regulatory air quality standards. On February 24th and from February 27th to March 6th, Imperial Oil hired Ortech to conduct monitoring. Ortech used more sensitive air sampling equipment with lower detection limits. The results from February 24th showed measurable levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes in the air offsite. Ontario's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change did not conduct their own air sampling during the flaring incident, but nonetheless claimed Imperial Oil was flaring volatile organic compounds and sulphur compounds.

Detecting pollutants in the surrounding area of the refineries is dependent on the direction of the winds and which monitor detects only specific levels of a number of pollutants. The monitoring itself is limited to specific stationary locations that often doesn’t reflect real-life exposures for individuals in Aamjiwnaang and other nearby communities.

In March 2018, The Ministry agreed to identify any potential non-compliance issues, required Imperial Oil to conduct air emission modeling for sulphur dioxide, hold Imperial Oil accountable to determine the cause of the incident and required preventative measures, required submission of flare operating data, required submission of a report on the root cause of the multiple unit shut-downs and subsequent increased flaring and required undertaking of preventative measures. 

In June 2018, Doug Ford was elected as premier of Ontario with intentions to cut Ontario’s Environmental laws to benefit economic growth. On December 6th, the Ontario government began to cut environmental laws including Bill 66 which eliminated the independent office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act (2018), to bypass environmental requirements for “open-for-business” planning by-laws. While the province Ontario is home to the largest population in Canada facing a growing climate crisis, the newly elected Ford government saw the environmental laws in place as “burdensome, and discouraging job-creators from coming to Ontario to do business”. 3

On February 19th 2019, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment Enforcement and Compliance Office announced the conclusion of the investigation of Imperial’s flaring incident with no charges laid. The lack of information given about how the investigation was conducted is not reassuring that action was taken in a timely or thorough manner. 

Being feet away from a facility while there's a fire is shocking and in the moment it’s not unusual to panic. Living close to the clusters of refineries and facilities owned by multinational companies gets more and more hazardous over time while their equipment becomes visibly rusty and their practices become increasingly outdated. Perpetual exposure to “minor” spills is a constant reminder that the oil and gas industry is considered a national necessity and its bottom line will be protected over Indigenous land use, which is forcefully stopped every time companies have an “incident”.

While it seems like everything behind the fence line of Imperial (or any other one of the companies) goes back to business as usual after an incident like the flaring incident, I wonder what the long term damage to the equipment looks like to the already aging infrastructure. My deepest fears come from the questions I have that even industry is unlikely to know the answers to, such as: How exactly is Aamjiwnaang supposed to be prepared for one explosion, or two or three happening in every direction? Is the emergency room at the Sarnia hospital prepared to accept hundreds of patients at once? (The estimate that hundreds of people could suffer from chemical exposure doesn’t even include the workers in the plant and Sarnia south end residents.) Why does the immediate response to an incident for Aamjiwnaang community members rely on our own preparedness? Could the company have warned Aamjiwnaang community members sooner than they did? And the question I always think about, was this preventable?

The uneasy feelings when the alarms blare are due to the lack of understanding of the situation, and not knowing when to expect an incident or how it will end. Hearing the alarms is rarely helpful for understanding what kind of dangerous chemicals we’re being exposed to. Moreover, the alarms come late. And like the alarm, the company, the emergency notification system, and the Ministry of Environment do not communicate any meaningful information about the situation so that the people affected can understand the risks and dangers. Company representatives will blame communication breakdowns every time the community is alerted hours after a release or spill occurs. While there's a general lack of understanding of the technical terminology companies use when briefly explaining why an incident took place, shouldn’t community members have resources available to understand these terms? Is it not the company and the government’s responsibility to make their industry jargon accessible in public statements intended for general readership? When we look closer at some of the terms, such as hydrocarbons or unit upset, we quickly learn that often what appears like a technical term actually reveals almost nothing specific about what is happening. Members of the community range in all ages, and so information about dangers should be accessible to all levels of learning. When incidents occur at the facilities, it could happen as quickly as a few minutes and, unlike the flare, is not always visible or sensible. We sometimes catch black smoke or massive flare or a strong smell coming from the facilities that only last a few seconds and we don’t always hear about what happened or what we were exposed to. Facilities like the Imperial Oil Refinery have a long record of remaining mysterious about their operations to the outside world, but if the safety of Aamjiwnaang was truly taken into consideration, we would have more and better information before a severe incident occurs and not after, when it's too late.

Imperial Oil has been trying to maintain their image on a (Facebook/ social media) page called Imperial Sarnia Site since this flaring incident occurred.

  1. Gray, Vanessa, and Elaine MacDonald. “Application For Investigation.” Received by Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Ecojustice, 11 Oct. 2017, Sarnia, ON.
  2. CBC. Towering Flames at Imperial Oil in Sarnia Not a Safety Concern, Says Company | CBC News. 24 Feb. 2017, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/imperial-oil-sarnia-fire-1.3997426.
  3. MacDonald, Elaine, et al. “Premier Doug Ford Dismantles Ontario's Environmental Protections – and What You Can Do about It.” Ecojustice, 10 Dec. 2018, www.ecojustice.ca/premier-doug-ford-dismantles-protections/.

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News Release from Imperial Oil

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Imperial responded to operating issue, grass fire: All clear issued at 8:35 p.m. EST Feb. 23, 2017


Imperial personnel responded to an internal operating issue at Sarnia Site at approximately 6:20 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Site sirens were activated to alert personnel to respond. Imperial notified the community about visible flaring as a result of the operating issue. Imperial also notified the City of Sarnia and Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

10/14/2018 Imperial responded to operating issue, grass fire: All clear issued at 8:35 p.m. EST Feb. 23, 2017 

Imperial Newsroom https://news.imperialoil.ca/press-release/imperial-responded-operating-issue-grass-fire-all-clear-issued-835-pm-est-feb-23-2017 2/3

Imperial has and will continue to monitor air quality at the site’s fence-line as a precaution. There are no issues with air quality currently identified.There are no injuries. Imperial is investigating the cause of the operating issue and personnel will work as safely and quickly as possible to restore operations to normal. Soon after our response to the operating issue, Imperial also assisted other industrial responders with extinguishing a grass fire just south of Imperial’s property and west of Vidal St. in Sarnia.

Imperial cannot speculate on the cause of the grass fire but will cooperate fully to provide any information that is required for an investigation. An all-clear was issued for the operating issue and for the grass fire at approximately 8:35 p.m.

Emergency contacts:

1-519-339-5666 to report any unusual odours, sights or sounds

1-519-339-2111 Imperial information line

1-855-472-7642 Community Awareness Emergency

Response (CAER) industry update line