Case claims Canadian Charter should protect right to a healthy environment

Photo Credit: Flickr

Photo Credit: Flickr

Ecojustice moves forward in case against Ontario government and Suncor

Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge claim the Ontario government failed to account for their Charter rights when approving new facilities in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley.”

The judicial review, which Ecojustice put before the courts in October 2010 on behalf of Aamjiwnaang First Nation members Plain and Lockridge, challenges the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s approval of additional pollution from Suncor in the industrialized sector of Sarnia known as “Chemical Valley.” Using sections seven and 15 of the Charter – the right to life, liberty and security of person and the right to equality before and under the law – Ecojustice claims the process and approval of new pollution by the Ontario government violates Plain and Lockridge’s Charter right to a healthy environment.

While the Ontario Divisional Court deemed some of the evidence improper in June, it rejected a motion put forward by Suncor to strike the entire case. Ecojustice has since revised their evidence, resubmitting it to the courts in early December. They plan to start the trial by next year.

The judicial review stems from about 12 years of studies, tests and community concerns about the health effects of air pollution on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community. Alongside a birth ratio of two girls born for every boy, the lowest ratio of live male births in the world, the community has noted high rates of cancer death, miscarriage, respiratory disease and learning disabilities.

Lockridge was a founding member of the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee, which formed in 2003 to protest Suncor’s proposed ethanol plant. As a member of the committee, she conducted a Body Mapping survey in 2004 and 2005, interviewing about 260 households on personal health-related problems. Only one survey came back with no reported health concerns.

Lockridge said her voluntary work and launching of the court case comes from an obligation to improve the health of her community, which she links to the harsh air pollution.

“For all the cancer deaths here, I couldn’t even go to their funerals at first because I felt guilty that I wasn’t working hard enough to help save them,” Lockridge said. “But now I’m accepting it a little bit more.”

Plain has moved north of Aamjiwnaang since the start of the case, saying his children had started to exhibit health problems. Plain was elected president of the Global Community Monitor in November, an international NGO that helped organize the Aamjiwnaang “Bucket Brigade,” where community members were given the tools and training to take air samples.

Lockridge, who sat on the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee at the time, helped take air samples as part of the bucket brigades that have been submitted as evidence under the judicial review. Dr. Elaine MacDonald, senior scientist at Ecojustice, looked at Ontario standards for air pollution after the air samples were taken.

“In a lot of cases there just weren’t any standards for the contaminants that were being found in the air,” MacDonald said. “We found things like ethyl-benzene, for example, or carbon-disulphide in the air.”

According to a 2007 report released by Ecojustice, about 60 per cent of the total emissions in the Chemical Valley are released within five kilometres of the reserve.

Ecojustice lawyer Justin Duncan emphasized that Plain and Lockridge are not seeking damages or compensation from this case, but are rather challenging the Ontario government’s process of approving new pollution.

“The result that we’re hoping for, and that Ada and Ron are hoping for, is not just to get a win in court or to get to a higher level of court, but to actually ensure that Ontario regulates pollution in a way that properly protects people’s health,” Duncan said.

After working with Lockridge and Plain for about four years and seeking government changes in the process of community consultation and approval of pollution, Ecojustice waited until the next approval was made to challenge the Ontario government’s decision.

“Suncor was never really the target of the lawsuit,” Plain said. “Suncor provided the opening.”

Kate Jordan, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment said new pollution and additional facilities are often approved on an individual basis because of differences in emissions amongst industries.

“The standards remain the same across the board, but obviously two different industries will have two different types of emissions, so the approvals are site specific depending on the operations of that facility,” Jordan said.

Yet Ecojustice representatives claim the government has failed to account for cumulative effects of air pollution on the Aamjiwnaang community.

“When you have one facility next to another facility next to another facility, like you do in Sarnia, it doesn’t make any sense to look at each facility separately, because all those pollutants are layering and intermingling on top of each other,” MacDonald said.

Plain said they will be challenging the government under section three of the Statement of Environmental Values for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which says the government should “consider the cumulative effects on the environment; the interdependence of air, land, water and living organisms; and the relationship among the environment, the economy and society.”

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Categories: Features, Health news, Policy, Public health

Author:Rachel Lauren Gardner

Lover of laughter, words, sketching, philosophy and jazz music. Believer that there is no greater power than that of a story to connect one heart to another, inspire thoughtful discussion, and create change.

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