Whistleblower says Aamjiwnaang at risk due to insufficient pollution consultation

A newly-retired Ontario Environment Ministry engineer says the provincial government failed to adequately consult with members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation over air quality regulations intended to curb excess benzene and sulfur dioxide from nearby Sarnia petrochemical plants.

Scott Grant told CBC News he submitted three separate whistleblower complaints outlining his concerns over a lack of consultations with Indigenous communities in 2009, 2014 and 2019, only for the provincial government to dismiss his concerns all three times.

Grant said his concerns in 2009 stemmed from excess sulfur dioxide emissions as a result of gas flaring from nearby chemical plants. 

"If not managed properly or minimized, it was quite a significant risk that can happen to the community," he added, explaining that exposure to benzene can pose long-term risks like cancer, while sulfur dioxide's acute effects can restrict airways, leading to breathing problems.

Grant filed a another complaint in 2014, explaining that he believed there were "some discriminatory attitudes left over from the past that were still kicking around."

A third complaint was filed in 2019.

"Again, I felt there wasn't sufficient consultation with Aamjiwnaang on pretty well the same issue of excess sulfur dioxide emissions," Grant said. 

Though he filed complaints on multiple occasions, Grant said the province's Environment Ministry "looked at them, but dismissed them in the end."

"As the issues evolved over the years, with everybody's understanding in Canada about the need to do more with truth and reconciliation … there was a real need to really improve our consultation efforts," he said. 

Ontario standards failed to keep up, says whistleblower

Though he submitted formal complaints about a lack of consultations, Grant said he is also concerned that Ontario's air quality standards hadn't evolved to meaningfully address concerns.

"For example in the United States over that same period and even starting back around 2000, there had been a huge effort to reduce emissions of things like benzene and sulfur dioxide, because of concerns with risk," he said.

In comparison, Grant felt Ontario's own standards had slipped.

"So when you couple that with the fact that the community is close to these facilities, I thought the Ministry really should be improving its efforts not only to consult, but obviously to improve its level of control to match that of those in the United States," he said. 

Aamjiwnaang calls for ability to enforce regulations

As it stands, Ontario's Environment Ministry is in charge of regulating air pollution emissions across the province.

In his interview with CBC, Grant also raised concerns about corporate lobbying "around concerns about the regulation."

Tap to hear Grant's conversation on CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive.

"My view is that sometimes the lobbying is not unreasonable," he said. "But when those decisions are made on how you respond to the lobbying, I think there's a real need to consult with the communities that are affected, particularly so when it's a First Nation community."

Sharilyn Johnston, the environment coordinator with Aamjiwnaang's environment department, said she was in disbelief when she learned about corporate lobbying aimed at the provincial government.

I think we should be in control of how we enforce the impacts to the community. - Sharilyn Johnston, Environment Coordinator, Aamjiwnaang Environment Department

"I'm going, here they're saying they're engaging with us and they're acting in good faith … but is it really goodwill from the higher up bureaucrats?" she said.

Johnston said she'd like to see Aamjiwnaang have control over how they're affected by emissions from neighbouring chemical plants.

"I think we should be in control of how we enforce the impacts to the community," she said. "If we have air quality days where we've got a lot of [sulfur dioxide] and there's impacts to the community around asthma and breathing difficulties, then we should be able to say to the industries, 'That's an offence.'"

Grant, the whistleblower, shared a similar sentiment, pointing to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Tribal Program as something Ontario should emulate.

"They've been doing that in the U.S. since the [1980s] ... it results in more local decisions — it's not another layer of decisions, they enforce the rule rather than the U.S. EPA." 

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said the province "takes concerns about air quality in Sarnia and across Ontario very seriously and has strong protections in place to regulate air contaminants released by various sources, including industrial and commercial facilities."

"The ministry has worked closely for several years with both the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nations communities to enhance their engagement in air monitoring and air quality in the Sarnia area," wrote Environment Ministry spokesperson Lindsay Davidson, citing the Sarnia Air Action Plan as an example of one of the steps taken to "identify and act on the risks posed by heavy industries in close proximity to Indigenous and other local communities."

Davidson added that an air monitoring station was installed in Aamjiwnaang in 2008.

This past summer, Grant filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) over concerns that he faced professional reprisal over his whistleblower submissions.

A settlement between the province and Grant occurred Thursday, with the agreement remaining private at the request of the province.