In March 2008, I was commissioned to cover a story for Chatelaine magazine on Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley”, and the people who are helping to raise awareness of the city’s toxic chemical neighbors. Sarnia is a lovely little town, which is set by the side of the St. Clair River, along with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and overlooks the St. Clair River and the city of Port Huron, Michigan. Unfortunately, Sarnia’s other neighbor is a series of 46 chemical plants that emit a very large amount of greenhouse gasses, and toxic accidents from time to time. This area is has been dubbed “Chemical Valley”.
The first night I was there, I photographed the chemical plants at night. Think Blade Runner and you’re mostly there. The plants are lit-up like Frankenstein Christmas trees, and their glow can be seen for miles. The odor they emit is overwhelming pungent, unlike anything I’ve encountered before. As I made my way around the acres upon acres of plants, I couldn’t help but stop at one plant that had a giant smokestack that fired an orange burner, like a jet engine, at the top. I shuddered to think at what it was burning exactly.
The next morning my assistant and I photographed the Mayor of Sarnia, Mike Bradley (he had a great interview in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”). He’s been the mayor of Sarnia since 1988, and stands as a great mediator between the chemical plants, and the citizens of Sarnia and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. We had a long talk about the mediation he’s involved in, the city after 9/11, his appreciation for Bruce Spingsteen, and the big summer concert “Bayfest” they hold every year (rockers are encouraged for the first night – Motley Crue, and cowboys the last night – Big & Rich).
In the afternoon, we made our way to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, to photograph Ada Lockridge, Chair of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee. For many years, the Aamjiwnaang people have endured a toxic punishment from Chemical Valley, and Ada is at the forefront to help make the chemical plants more accountable for their impact on her community. Ada was kind enough to take give us a tour of the Aamjiwnaang burial land, where her great, great grandfather, mother and father are all buried. The beautiful, and sacred little stretch of land stands in stark contrast to the Sunoco petrochemical plant that sits belching fire and smoke right beside it.
Later in the afternoon, we were fortunate enough to meet and photograph Sandy Kinart and Barb Millitt, both prominent activists in the community. They help to educate and support the workers and families of Chemical Valley, who end up silently carrying the burden of proof, which could be used against the companies of Chemical Valley, and is badly needed to fight for workers rights. Sandy’s husband Blayne, died of mesothelioma, due to his exposure to asbestos in the workplace, and was photographed by Louie Palu as he slowly succumbed to his terrible disease. Louie’s beautiful and compassionate photographs of Blayne can be seen here.
Much like Karen Silkwood, these brave and compassionate people have become empowered by the very obstacles they face, and are doing an incredible service to their communities and the generations to follow. I can’t help but think that their work is helping to deliver a final blow to the industrial giant that has neglected and intimidated the people of Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang for many generations.
Please read the full artilce by Rachel Giese at Chatelaine.com, here.