By Colin Graf
AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION— Environmental activist Vanessa Gray and a scientific team from the University of Toronto area are launching a cell phone app to help her community of Aamjiwnaang First Nation track and report chemical leaks and spills from the complex of refineries and chemical plants in Sarnia known as Canada’s Chemical Valley.
Gray, who was arrested for shutting down the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline near Aamjiwnaang in 2015, announced the creation of the Pollution Reporter app and its companion website, landandrefinery.org, during the annual Toxic Tour of the Chemical Valley, a yearly march and protest over pollution in the area.
“The app makes it easier for citizens of Aamjiwnaang to report spills, leaks, or heavy flaring of chemicals from the tall stacks at the local plants that overshadow many of the community’s homes,” says Kristen Bos, lab manager of the U of T’s Technoscience Research Unit who also identifies as urban Métis. “The app can call up a simple form allowing users to enter the same questions the Ontario Government’s Spills Action Centre (SAC) staff would ask people who report incidents over the phone, and then sends the form by email.”
The telephone reporting system is “flawed” says Bos, and the new app makes reporting simpler, and more accessible. Users also keep a copy of their pollution report and can share it on social media.
Gray says the idea for the app came to her out of frustration with reporting incidents such as heavy smoke from industrial plants or a bad odour or taste in the air, to the SAC.
“They ask you 20 questions and want really detailed answers from you for anything to move forward. They don’t really want to look at complaints until the whole community calls at once,” she says.
The researchers hope the app will help Aamjiwnaang citizens make their voices heard more clearly, says Bos. Calling someone in an office in Toronto who has no knowledge of the Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia area can lead to confusing and lengthy conversations. Pull down menus provide the date and time and other things a caller might not know but are asked for over the phone such as wind speed and direction.
“The app also connects users to data about the health effects of 77 chemicals the Imperial Oil complex in Sarnia releases to the environment,” Bos notes.
When a chemical spill or leak occurs, “there isn’t information at your fingertips” and this feature in the Pollution Reporter app connects the dots for the users.
The app also shows how much of each chemical the Imperial facilities release annually and shows cumulative pollution totals year-over-year.
Bos says that focussing their studies on Imperial Oil is part of a larger project by the Research Unit to look at “researching the history, operations, and pollution activities” of the company since it is the oldest refinery in Canada, and the oldest operating refinery in the world and the “biggest polluter” in the Chemical Valley. Her group’s research turns the table on conventional research by changing the familiar pattern of university and government researchers studying Indigenous people with environmental problems into a project with Indigenous researchers investigating polluters and the role of government in allowing pollution, she explains.
The Toronto researchers hope the app will make it easier for people to report pollution and allow Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia residents to use the information to advocate for themselves with their doctors or the Ministry, says Michelle Murphy, director of the Technoscience Research Unit, and Winnipeg Métis. The group also hopes to expand the app to include pollution and health effects data beyond Imperial Oil to other Chemical Valley companies.
Murphy hopes to collaborate with the Aamjiwnaang administration in the future. The unit researchers have consulted with Chief and Council and the local environment committee throughout the entire development phased of the app, and hopes to work “in a more formal way” with the administration in the future.
Their app does not collect data from individual users, but with the First Nation’s agreement, that data could be used in the future to help Aamjiwnaang record people’s pollution concerns, she says.
“It’s really important to us to figure out how that data can be used.”
The next step is “to work with the community and help them understand and use the app effectively,” Vanessa Gray said at the end of the recent Toxic Tour.
A spokesperson for Imperial Oil says the company “understands the concerns some community members may have regarding operational performance at our site, and we follow up on all inquiries we receive.”
“Imperial’s Sarnia site has reduced emissions of the chemical benzene by 88 percent and sulphur dioxide by 60 percent since 1994,” Kristina Zimmer stated in an e-mail. “In the last several years, the company has worked with community partners including Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the Ministry of Environment to develop the ‘Clean Air Sarnia and Area’ (CASA) website that community members can use to understand whether air quality is good, moderate or poor compared to provincial standards.”