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Residents, community leaders angry Sarnia, Ont. chemical plant with high benzene levels waited so long to shut down

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Residents and civic leaders in both Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation are upset a chemical manufacturing plant waited so long to shut down after extremely high benzene levels were detected near the site.

The halt in production at INEOS Styrolution on Tashmoo Avenue in south Sarnia didn’t happen until several people fell ill and an order from the province was issued.

“In my heart I knew everybody needed to know,” said community member Ada Lockridge. “We’ve been living like this for so long, it felt kinda natural.”

Lockridge, a long time environmental activist, said extremely high levels of benzene were detected last Tuesday at the air monitoring station that is named after her at Tashmoo Avenue and Churchill Road.

“The sad thing, INEOS didn’t even notify us. They didn’t notify the ministry that this was going on,” said Lockridge.

She said benzene levels from INEOS were found to be 22 times higher than Ontario’s ambient air quality criteria. High levels had been recorded as far back as Easter, with no notification from the company, according to Lockridge.

Benzene is linked to various health impacts, including leukaemia. The elevated levels led to the closure of several buildings on the First Nation, and sent several people to hospital.

INEOS Styrolution is seen in Sarnia, Ont. on April 22, 2024. (Bryan Bicknell/CTV News London) “They were feeling dizzy, and felt like they were kinda drunk or something. Kinda stumbling around, and they didn’t know why,” explained Lockridge.

Aamjiwnaang Chief Chris Plain and council called for an immediate shutdown of the plant. A provincial order followed last Thursday, giving the company one week to create a plan to address benzene levels.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley expressed frustration at INEOS.

“The company has been silent, has not been communicating directly with the city as it relates to the political leadership,” said Bradley. “I thought these days had passed. Communicate, communicate, communicate and not keep information from the public because it creates suspicion, and it creates distrust. And I understand the anger of the Aamjiwnaang of what has occurred and how they found out. That is not acceptable.”

INEOS Styrolution would not speak to CTV News London on camera. Instead the company issued a brief statement saying the health and safety of employees and the community is paramount, and that it’s shutting down temporarily to address a “mechanical issue.”

“We want to be safe and they’ve been getting away with this for a long time, too long,” said Lockridge. 

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