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Ontario chemical plant subject to provincial, federal orders, permanently closing

A plastics plant in Sarnia, Ont., that has been subject to recent orders and regulations from both the provincial and federal governments over benzene emissions is permanently shutting down.

Ineos Styrolution said in a statement Tuesday that its decision to close the Sarnia site by June 2026 was made "irrespective" of the current regulatory situation.

"This difficult business decision to permanently close our Sarnia site was made following a lengthy evaluation process and is based on the economics of the facility within a wider industry context," CEO Steve Harrington wrote in the statement.

"The long-term prospects for the Sarnia site have worsened to the point that it is no longer an economically viable operating asset."

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The site temporarily shut down in April shortly after the neighbouring Aamjiwnaang First Nation recorded high benzene emissions and said people there were falling ill.

Earlier this month, the province introduced a new regulation limiting benzene emissions at Ineos, with the government saying it was concerned about how the emissions are affecting Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Ontario has issued four orders to Ineos Styrolution since 2019, and added new conditions to its licence that it must meet before it restarts operations, but the government said recently that benzene levels remained elevated.

The new provincial regulation came shortly after new air quality standards from Environment Canada aimed at Ineos Styrolution.

The company said it was being unfairly and "relentlessly targeted" by the governments and has maintained it has never detected emissions over limits.

Benzene can cause neurological symptoms such as dizziness and headaches following short-term exposures, and can cause cancers such as leukemia after long-term exposures.

It is a clear, mostly colourless liquid that is part of the makeup of crude oil. It's used to make styrene, a lightweight plastic used in everything from auto parts and food containers to toys.

The Ineos Sarnia site employs 80 people and a large number of contractors.

The company said it will work closely "with all necessary parties to complete an orderly wind-down process and a permanent closure of the site in a safe, responsible, and compliant manner."

Environmental group Ecojustice welcomed the news, saying the people of Aamjiwnaang had been exposed to unacceptable levels of benzene.

“Chemical Valley is home to a significant proportion of Canada’s petrochemical plants, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation has borne a disproportionate level of harm from this industry,” Elaine MacDonald, the group’s communities program director, wrote in a statement.

“Ineos Styrolution shutting down is an important first step in addressing the legacy of environmental racism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press