Feds tightening rules around benzene storage

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The federal government is tightening controls on storage tanks in the wake of high benzene emissions in Sarnia.

Canada’s Environment Minister says companies which have emitted benzene in Sarnia and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation will have to “implement vapour-control measures, including fully closed vent systems with vapour control” on benzene storage tanks.

Environment Canada officials met with the members of the Aamjiwnaag First Nation Friday for about four hours to explain the new regulations under Canada’s Environment Protection Act.

Members of the community surrounded by industries, including INEOS Styrolutions, have been dealing with the effects of benzene emissions for decades. In 2023, a provincial study said elevated airborne concentrations of cancer-causing benzene and sulphur dioxide caused increased risk of leukemia.

But the issue came to a head in mid-April when people in Aamjiwnaang became ill after air monitors around the band administration officer registered benzene levels more than 400 times the Ontario standards.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment shutdown INEOS Styrolutions, Aamjiwnaang’s neighbour which uses benzene to produce styrene. The company has benzene holding tanks on site. Officials said earlier this month – after the MECP shut the plant down to deal with benzene emissions – what was in storage was not being shipped off the property to be stored elsewhere.

Friday, federal environment ministry officials came to Aamjiwnaang to meet with residents and explain the new federal standards. That meeting was ongoing at 1:15 pm.

In a news release, the ministry says it will be reviewing data from air monitors in Sarnia starting in March 2023. Any company which is found to have benzene emissions over 29 parts per billion in a two-week sampling period, will need to implement vapour-control measures including installing fully closed vent systems with vapour control on benzene storage tanks.

It’s not immediately clear how big of a project that would be for the companies which might be affected. The federal government says similar standards are in place in the US and the new Canadian standard should not harm industry’s competitiveness.

The news release says the order will be in effect for two weeks and could be extended up to two years.

Friday’s announcement is an interim order to allow the federal government to write new regulations which will apply to terminals, refineries, upgraders, petrochemical facilities and bulk fuel facilties which store volatile petroleum liquids in tanks. Officials said the regulations would set out a timeline to install the equipment.

“It’s simply unacceptable that the people of Aamjiwnaang Frist Nation and Sarnia face ongoing issues with poor air quality,” said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in a news release. Guilbeaut said he appreciated the action of the province but “based on the air quality data and lack of action by industry to address their pollution, I am using the powers provided by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to advance environmental justice in this community.”

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