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Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia, Ont., has declared a state of emergency after a significant spike in the cancer-causing substance benzene was detected as a chemical plant began to shut down.

Hourly benzene readings as high as 191.3 ug/m3 at noon on April 25 were detected by a real-time air monitor on the First Nation’s northern border. The wind direction indicated that the high levels appeared to be linked to a pending plant shutdown at INEOS Styrolution, a chemical manufacturer. The manufacturer is addressing a mechanical issue, he told Global News last week.


Click to play video: 'Ontario takes action against chemical plants after First Nation members fall ill'

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Ontario takes action against chemical plant after First Nation members fall ill


The data from the air monitor has not yet been verified. The Ontario ministry of environment has set the annual average limit for benzene at 0.45 ug/m3. The province has not set an hourly limit.

In a press release, Chief Christopher Plain urged any members of the community who feel unsafe at home “due to continued and excessive releases” from the facility to contact the band office. An administrator will help members organize alternative housing, according to the statement.

On social media late Thursday, many community members expressed concern and confusion about whether they needed to leave.

“Although declaring a state of local emergency is a serious measure, Aamjiwnaang is doing so in order to … ensure that we have sufficient resources available if further action needs to be taken,” according to the notification.


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Jada Henry, a resident of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, said she helped a friend on the north side of the community evacuate their home tonight.

Her family is also grappling with the difficult decision to leave the home she shares with her family, which includes her young niece and nine-year-old nephew.

“My heart really hurts for my community,” Henry told Global News. “We have considered that maybe tomorrow night we should leave our home, in order to keep them safe.”


Click to play video: 'Ontario First Nation residents sickened after high benzene levels found'

2:49
Residents of an Ontario First Nation became ill after high benzene levels were found


The state of emergency followed a community alert from INEOS earlier on Wednesday, warning that there could be “temporary spikes” in benzene levels during some periods of plant closures.

“Ensuring the health and safety of our employees and our community is paramount,” the company said in a community alert issued on April 20, adding that operations will resume once it addresses the issue.

The company did not specify whether the shutdown is related to spikes in benzene levels detected last week, reaching 115 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) on April 16, according to unverified real-time data. Dozens of First Nation residents reported feeling ill, and an unknown number were in hospital.

Multiple sources within the First Nation told Global News they were not aware of any closures scheduled for this month.

Before declaring the state of emergency, the leadership of the First Nation issued warnings to its members earlier Wednesday afternoon to stay away from the northern border. For the past three weeks, air monitors between the First Nation and the INEOS plant have been detecting spikes as high as 150 ug/m3 per hour.


Click to play video: 'Ontario health review links Sarnia-area air pollution to increased cancer risk'

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An Ontario health review links Sarnia-area air pollution to an increased risk of cancer


The Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks issued a provincial order last Thursday against INEOS, giving the chemical manufacturer one week to create a written plan to address the high levels, two weeks to implement new procedures to alert the public about high levels of these. toxic emissions, and less than a month to complete an investigation into the apparent source of the chemical spill.

Accordingly, the province said INEOS is the “main source” of the high benzene levels.

At the federal level, Environment Canada has an open enforcement file related to the INEOS facility under the Environmental Emergencies regulations, Global News has learned.

David R. MacDonald, operations manager and interim INEOS Styrolution site director, said on April 18 that the company is “carefully reviewing” concerns raised by Aamjiwnaang First Nation about benzene readings from the INEOS site.

“The site works closely with the (Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks) to ensure we stay within the prescribed emission limits,” MacDonald wrote in an email.

INEOS did not immediately respond to Global News’ request for comment on the state of the crisis, nor did the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.


Click to play video: 'Canada's Toxic Secret: Disturbing trend of leaks and spills in Sarnia area'

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Canada’s Toxic Secret: Disturbing trend of leaks and spills in Sarnia area


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