‘I don’t feel right’

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Aamjiwnaang residents treated at the hospital after being exposed to high benzene levels

Bob Rogers started to feel sick to his stomach around 11 am Tuesday.

The 67 year-old Aamjiwnaang public works employee had been out Monday and Tuesday on the riding lawn mower cutting grass on the band’s property across the road from INEOS Styrolution on Tashmoo Ave.

He still felt sick at lunch.

“I would just sit there for a bit. ..I didn’t know what was bringing it on. So, I thought it was my sugar (levels) acting up or something. So, I went home check my sugar and it was good. So, I come back and I told my boss I said I was going to go home because I wasn’t feeling good. I said ‘I don’t know what it was.’ I said ‘I don’t feel right.'”

His daughter, Christine Yorke, could tell something was wrong as he came to her door. Rogers looked tired and drawn.

“He was feeling tingly and he was kind of faint and just like looking at him, I could tell he didn’t feel well. So I said, ‘I’m going to follow you.’ So I followed them down to his house. And then we called the ambulance,” says Yorke.

Yorke, who also works for the band, was only home because she was also feeling sick. She works in a portable just across the road from Styrolution. She’d also called her boss to say she wasn’t feeling well and was taking work home to finish and then go to bed.

But there would be no rest.

Yorke called an ambulance for her father and, on the paramedics advice, both she and her 19 year-old daughter also went to the emergency department since they had similar symptoms as Rogers.

“Once he (Rogers) got into a room, we went back to check on him and then they said they were calling poison control to see what the next step would be because, they said, they don’t even have a protocol for when this happens. They don’t know how to manage it. So, they had to call poison control.”

The three all had blood tests, were monitored for six hours and sent home because their symptoms had not changed.

While Yorke and her family were being seen at the hospital, the band closed down its buildings after being alerted by community activist Ada Lockridge of benzene levels 22 times higher than allowed by Ontario law. Lockridge, who with the late Ron Plain in 2014 sued the Ontario government over emissions from the petrochemical industry, has an air quality monitoring station named after her. She checks it regularly and was shocked what she found Tuesday.

“I just happened to look at that and it was like, ‘Whoa, oh my God. Oh my God. Who do I call?'”

Lockridge turned to some her environmental contacts who told her the benzene levels were “off the charts” that day. But she says watchdogs have noted there have been high benzene levels from the Styrolution plant for some time and the Aamjiwnaag council has been trying to get government to do something about it.

Wednesday, the band council released a statement calling on all levels of government to shut the plant down immediately.

“The cause of these symptoms is directly related to the continuing and excessive levels of benzene emissions coming from the INEOS facility located directly across from the Band office, environmental office and the community playground,” Chris Plain said in a news release issued on Twitter.

Plain says despite continuous monitoring by both the provincial and federal government “the level of benzene being reported within Aamjiwnaang’s monitoring stations continually exceeds regulated standards and, more alarming, appears to be increasing.

“The dangerous environment in which community members are forced to live and work are a direct result of colonialism and the continued oppression of Aamjiwnaag as a nation,” the letter continued adding there have been a number of studies highlighting the ongoing problem.

“Immediate reforms are needed to address the systemic racism which pervades the environmental protection regime and allows industry proponents such as INEOS to continue with ‘business as usual.’”

Yorke’s is angry the company continues to release benzene into her community. “If we know that they (benzene levels) are elevated, why the hell have they not been shut down a long time ago? What is the ministry doing just sitting on their thumbs not doing anything about it? They know it’s elevated.”

Yorke reported the issue herself, contacting the Ontario Spills Action Centre who gave her the MECP’s District Manager. “He admitted that he knew it was elevated. Yet they haven’t done anything to press charges or lay charges or enforce their own regulations. They haven’t done anything. They don’t even put a notice out.”

And she also blames the band’s administration for not taking action sooner.

“They should be implementing occupational health and safety rules, which they already know – it’s already developed. I want to see them implementing that and documenting people symptoms and keeping a record of it. And if we need these blood tests to happen before it passes through our system, they should have already been on that; they should have already had those blood tests done, but they haven’t.”

Yorke says it is clear others in the community also were concerned for their health. “There’s other people who have gone to the hospital and sat there for hours and did not get seen – did not become a priority – so they walked back out.”

It was frustrating, Yorke said, that hospital staff didn’t seem to know what should be done. “They are concerned about somebody who’s exposed to like 700 like parts per billion not 70 parts per billion, because at 700, you’re in respiratory distress, you can’t breathe and you end up in ICU. That’s when it’s an emergency situation when you’ve been exposed to it over a prolonged period of time.

“With unknown amounts, the symptoms really aren’t known. It’s really just manage the symptoms is what they said; manage the symptoms as they come and watch us for six hours and we get to go home.”

But Yorke knows even with lower exposure to benzene there are consequences. “I already know benzene causes cancer. I already know that is the outcome.”

Yorke shared her experience online hoping other band members who were also exposed would have their blood tested to show the presence of the chemical.

Her online story caught the eye of Jim Brophy. He worked with members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation decades ago during a spill at NOVA when he was the executive director of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers.

“The Ministry of the Environment is allowing these companies to break the law. The benzene releases are in excess of the legal limit. They are endangering the community,” he wrote in response online. “It is a flagrant disregard of public health and human rights.”

And he says its a problem that has been going on for years.

“The ongoing toxic exposure of the children has been left unaddressed by the government for over 20 years ..To me this is criminal behaviour and blatant environmental racism.”

The Independent contacted INEOS and the Ministry of the Environment for information about the high benzene levels but have yet to receive any comment.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, in an email, said he’s asked city management to find out why a notification about the excess benzene discharge hasn’t been issued.

It’s a question Christine Yorke has, too.

“How long have we been doing this? These guys know what the processes should be. I don’t know why they’re not being implemented. Why are we relying on Ada (Lockridge) to give reports and updates on when these things are elevated? We should already know that because we can look at those same websites just like she can. Why is there nobody doing that?”