History of Spills

Residents of the Aamjiwnaang Reserve, surrounded as they are by heavily polluting industries, not only have risk for health related illnesses associated with “normal” emissions, but also are subject to numerous accidental leaks and spills into the air and water of the area. Dow Chemical, for example, was a major contributor to mercury pollution during its more than seventy years in the area (they pulled out in 2009), with large amounts of mercury having been leaked into the environment through ways of air emission, water, waste sludge, and in end products. Mercury poisoning has been known to cause blindness, birth defects, brain damage, and once leaked into the environment causes uncontrollable damage. Many Aamjiwnaang band members who traditionally depended on the local environment for food, such as fish from the St. Clair River, cannot and should not be consuming such products when many of the fish are contaminated with mercury and other pollutants. The fish tested for mercury pollution in the Aamjiwnaang area were found to have 33 times the safe eating level of mercury and with mercury concentrating as it moves up the food chain, one can only wonder how the poison increases. Dow is also responsible for a 5-10 thousand gallon spill of perchloroethylene (which is a carcinogenic dioxin) in 1985.

Dow Chemical provides a particularly dramatic example of large-scale spills of toxins into the environment, but by no means the only one. According to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory and the US Toxic Release Inventory, the facilities located near the reserve together produce 134,000 tons of substances, air contaminants, toxic pollutants, and greenhouse gases. And with there being an average of 100 leaks a year, it is troubling to think about the effects on the environment and the people who live there.

There have also been many spills into the St. Clair River, which has been a source of drinking water for the First Nation. “Between 1974 and 1986, a total of 32 major spills and 300 minor spills have contributed to approximately 10 tons of pollutants in the St. Clair River….Furthermore, an abundance of agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizers enter the river every year” (Mascarenhas, 2007). Other chemicals that have been detected in the area include: chloromethane, benzene, chlorobenzene, ethyl benzene, and isoprene all of which were detected at levels that exceed legal limits in the U.S.  Sarnia is one of the most polluted areas in Canada: with there being more that 40% of Canada’s chemical industry and 62 industrial facilities with just 25 kilometers of the reserve, it is no wonder that so many people are sick. The City of Sarnia released more than 131 thousand tons of air pollution in 2005, including many chemicals that are known to cause cancers, reproductive problems and developmental disorders.

Below is a short list — only a small subset of the total number of spills that have been reported, which in turn is only a small subset of spills that have actually occurred.  [Thanks to Doug Martz of St. Clair Channelkeepers (http://www.waterkeeper.org/ht/d/OrganizationDetails/id/633 ) for compiling research on the many spills that have happened and been recorded from 1986 up to 2000.]

  • July 12, 1986 Shell spills around 1,000 gallons of oil into the St. Clair River
  • July 25, 1986 Polysar spills around 7,000 gallons of oil into the St. Clair River
  • July 25, 1986 EPC spills 105,840 gallons of oil into the river
  • July 30, 1986 Dow spills 100 gallons of crude ethyl benzene
  • August 19, 1986 Polysar spills 28,000 U.S. gallons of partially treated wastewater
  • October 4th & 5th, 1986 Dow spills 5,300 lbs. of sodium hydroxide
  • December 18, 1986 C.I.L. spills 50 kg. of ammonium carbonate
  • April 10th, 1987 Polysar spills 1,816 liters of acidic material
  • May 19th, 1988 Dow Chemical Liquids, N.O.S. spills 113 Liters of caustic, corrosive material
  • May 27th, 1988 Dow Chemical spills a high quantity of PH 3x sodium hydroxide
  • Jun 21st, 1988 Shell spills 100 Liters of Light Marine Diesel Fuel
  • July 8th, 1988 Azko Chemical spills  32 kilograms of Di-ethylene Tri-Amine
  • September 2nd,, 1988 Polysar spills 90 liters of benzene
  • November 16th, 1988 CIL spills 262 Kg of ammonium nitrate liquid
  • November 26th, 1988 Polysar spills an unknown quantity of divinyl benzene
  • November 23rd, 1988 Fiberglass spills 10 liters of ammonia phenol-formaldehyde
  • December 7th, 1989 Polysar spills  3600 gallons of benzene acetonitrile
  • December 18th , 1989 Shell spills 63 Kg of benzene
  • January 4th, 1990 E.P.C. spills 331 Kg. of sulphides
  • September 11th, 1990 Dow spills 200-300 Kg. Of benzene/ethyl benzene
  • October 30th , 1990 Dow spills 3600 Kg. of ethyl benzene
  • January 30th, 1991 Ontario Hydro spills 8778 liters of cooling water with sodium chromate
  • November 18th, 1992 I.C.I. spills 88 Kg. of ammonia
  • February 9th, 1993 Polysar spills 70 Kg of benzene
  • November 5th, 1994 Dow spills 68, 1.5, and 8 Kg of ethyl benzene, toluene, and styrene
  • February 18th, 1995 Dow spills 25 Kg of calcium hydroxide
  • August 27th, 1997 Imperial Oil spills 100 gallons of marine diesel
  • July 27th, 1998 Ontario Hydro spills 385 Kg of sodium metabisulphites
  • March 14th, 1999 Suncor spills 8kg of Benzene/toluene xylene

Here are some of the many affects a few of these chemicals can have on people’s bodies:

— Hydrocarbons (various fuels and lubricants): these fluids can cause eye and skin irritation. They also cause respiratory problems, central nervous system depression, and some components are suspected and known to be carcinogens.

— Benzene: can cause nervous system depression, can affect the blood and bone marrow causing anemia, bleeding and immunosuppression, and is also a known carcinogen (leukemia).

— Ammonia: can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. Is corrosive to the esophagitis and gastritis.


  • Dhillon, Christina, and Michael G. Young. “Environmental Racism and Public Policy in Canada: A Modest Proposal for Social Justice:.” C J H & S S Home. Canadian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://cjhss.org/_cjhss/ pubData/v_1/i_1/201006021/20100602-1.html>.
  • “Dow’s Legacy of Poison.” International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Live Earth. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://bhopal.net/petition/application/views/canada_more.html&gt;.
  • Martz, Doug. Spills to the St Clair Over 1986-2000.
  • Murphy, Michelle. “Chemical Regimes of Living.” Environmental History. Co-published by the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest Society in Association with Oxford University Press, Oct. 2008. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://www.environmental history.net/articles/13-4_Murphy.htm>.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s