A chemical plant in Sarnia, Ont., that has been shut down over benzene emissions says complying with certain conditions set out by the provincial government can't be done safely and will cost up to $50 million.

INEOS Styrolution is now appealing the government's actions and wants the province to reverse new, stronger emissions restrictions.

The company started to shut down its operation on April 20, days after some members of neighbouring Aamjiwnaang First Nation say they were treated in hospital for benzene exposure. 

The provincial government suspended an approval the company needs to restart on May 1 and told the company it needs to significantly reduce benzene emissions to get the suspension lifted. 

Benzene is a byproduct of fuel refining that INEOS uses to produce styrene that companies need to manufacture auto parts, electronics and medical appliances. 

It can also cause cancer through long-term exposure.

Company says meeting conditions will cost up to $50 million

Benzene created at refineries in Sarnia-Lambton is transferred to INEOS by pipeline and stored in tanks that sit across the road from Aamjiwnaang's band offices and baseball diamonds.

The new conditions prevent INEOS from receiving or storing benzene at the facility.

The company says that can't be done safely and has economic impacts.

"For example, emptying the tanks is not achievable in a safe manner due to the extent of activities required and absence of off-site storage tanks, and represents a risk to the natural environment," the company stated in a May 15 letter seeking a review and stay of the province's decisions.

The company has requested a hearing into the matter through the Ontario Lands Tribunal. 

A spokesperson for the tribunal said that the appeal is in the intake stage.

Ontario's environment ministry says that the current orders will be in effect while the process is unfolding.

"INEOS is required to comply with these requirements unless the decisions under appeal are stayed by the tribunal," a spokesperson told CBC News.

The company estimates costs to meet the provincial conditions will be between $30 million and $50 million.

INEOS says there are 80 full-time direct jobs and 500 indirect jobs associated with its operations in the region.

"The newly imposed benzene emissions limits and conditions to restart the facility will likely cripple INEOS' operation and may result in a rippling effect on the refinery industry," the letter states.

Sarnia-Lambton is home to the second largest cluster of petrochemical companies and refineries in Canada. 

Those refineries provide a significant portion of the jet fuel used at Toronto Pearson Airport and automotive fuel in Ontario and contingency plans are now in the works.

An industry group said there was no immediate impact earlier this month. 

New limits not 'demonstrated to be necessary' says company

INEOS argues in its letter that the province has not shown the company why the new benzene emission limits issued as part of the most recent order are required.

The company has been issued four orders since 2019 by the provincial government after elevated concentrations of benzene emissions were measured at air monitors along the property line of the company and at Aamjiwnaang First Nation. 

"INEOS has worked cooperatively with the ministry in respect of developing various plans and orders intended to accelerate benzene emissions reductions," it states in the appeal.  

In 2019, the company created a benzene reduction plan after the province issued an order to reduce emissions following elevated concentrations.

That plan was not able to address emissions fast enough, according to the provincial government, which issued another order in 2020 requiring the company to do more to address benzene emissions. 

Air monitors continued to record "significantly elevated benzene concentrations" over the next two years according to the province, resulting in a third order issued in 2023.

That order, according to the company's appeal letter, set a benzene emission limit of 580 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre air) over one hour and 320 µg/m3 over 24 hours.

At the same time, Aamjiwnaang First Nation pushed for a study on the health risks of benzene that was completed in December 2023.

That study set a new benchmark stating an increase likelihood of health risks if benzene concentrations exceeded 90 µg/m3 over an hour or 30 µg/m3 over 24 hours.

INEOS argues in its letter that the new benchmark is not a legal requirement and that it has "not been subjected to the consultative process... that normally accompanies significant changes."

"Application of the benchmarks has not been demonstrated to be necessary or appropriate to prevent an adverse effect or be protective of the environment,"  the company states in the appeal letter.

Public notification benchmarks 'arbitrary' argues company

The provincial order also drastically reduces the benzene emissions level that will require an alert to the public.

An air monitor in Aamjiwnaang recorded levels above the 2023 technical standard one hour limit 18 times over a two week period in April.

At the time, people were upset that there was no public notification during this period despite air monitors exceeding the health-protective benchmarks.

The most recent order requires the company to notify the public with an alert whenever emissions are recorded at 75 per cent of the of the 2023 health-protective benchmarks.

INEOS argues that those alerts should be issued by the provincial government. 

Appeal comes as feds bring new rules

The appeal was filed days before the federal government issued its own order against the southwestern Ontario operation. 

The temporary order signed by Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault requires any facility that has recorded excess levels of benzene between March 1, 2023, and Feb. 29, 2024, to put in place vapour control measures on benzene storage tanks.

That order came three weeks after a meeting with Aamjiwnaang councillor Janelle Nahmabian who traveled to Ottawa as part of a delegation asking for action on plastic pollution. 

"To me... it honestly feels like a shift in humanity because there's so many people that have shown up for us, where historically ... we've often felt like we've been on our own," Nahmabian said shortly after the federal order was announced. 

"I think that with this interim order, it is going to enhance any provincial orders. Personally, I felt like the provincial orders weren't tight enough and this kind of bridges that gap."

2024-05-21T08:02:19Z dg43tfdfdgfd