An emergency alert system that is supposed to warn Great Lakes communities of toxic spills from Canada’s Chemical Valley is outdated, overly complicated and often useless in giving Michigan coastal cities timely notice of an environmental threat.
Michigan officials say hours can pass before they are told of oil or chemical spills into the St. Clair River. Given the river’s swift current, a delay of over an hour from the Sarnia, Ontario facilities makes the warnings of limited value to coastal communities south of Port Huron, critics say.
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Officials overseeing the byzantine system concede that alerts sometimes pass through up to five government agencies in Canada and the U.S. before they reach cities and towns along a spill’s path.
In addition, many of the roughly 60 factories within Chemical Valley announce spill alerts not through some high-tech form of automated mass communication. Rather, they alert Sarnia police through a relic of pre-9/11 technology: the fax machine.
“A rat in a maze couldn’t follow the diagram that tells officials who to contact next,” Doug Martz, who served as chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board until it was disbanded in 2011, said of the Canadian warning system.
“In today’s age, it makes no sense,” he said. “Does the system work? Absolutely not.”
Lots of grumbling, little change
Oil and chemical spills from the Sarnia factories flow through the St. Clair River into Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. What’s left of a spill would head further south into Lake Erie. A delay in reporting spills means the damage may have already been done by the time local health departments and drinking water plants in metro Detroit receive word of an accident.
Officials on the U.S. side, mostly from St. Clair and Macomb counties, have registered complaints about Canada’s alert system for more than a decade following spills in 2004, 2011, 2012 and again last year.
To this day, FAX machines are still used by 20 companies at Chemical Valley to notify Sarnia police and EMS about spills or air emissions that present a potential health hazard.
From there, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment in Toronto is notified. That agency then warns Michigan State Police, which uses the computerized Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) to alert local police along with the state Department of Environmental Quality. DEQ say it then activates a warning network that spreads information from its Lansing headquarters to its southeast Michigan district office in Warren, which notifies local health officials if a potential public safety emergency is determined.
Water plant operators are sometimes the last to know.
Some recent spills have renewed concerns about the alert system. Bridge obtained descriptions of spill alerts since 2014 from Michigan DEQ and a bi-national committee that oversees environmental improvement efforts on the river.
In April 2016, when Imperial Oil spilled an unknown amount of diluted hydrofluoric acid, a toxic substance that can poison people through exposure, into the St. Clair River, local officials on the U.S. side were not notified until about two days later.
This past February, when a fire broke out at Chemical Valley, Michigan’s St. Clair County learned of it through social media, not through the warning system. As orange flames rose through the sky, an official on the U.S. side of the border said, “some feared for their lives, they thought the whole thing was blowing up.” A spokesman for Chemical Valley industries said Canadian authorities were not alerted about the blaze because it was determined that the public “was not in imminent danger.”
During another chemical release that same month from Shell Oil, the company’s phone line available for concerned residents was not in service. And an emergency number listed for a local Canadian fire department instead directed callers to an auto dealership in Omaha, Nebraska.
Still, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment insists the notification system functions properly.
“The ministry remains committed to ensuring timely notification to partners during emergencies and supports discussions between officials on our joint agreements to ensure this occurs,” said Lindsay Davidson, an agency spokesman.
He did not comment on individual incidents.
Beyond slow response times, internal documents reveal other shortcomings.
In some cases, spill warnings never made their way to DEQ. Others did not include basic information such as the source of the leak, the pollutant involved, or the volume of contaminants released.
Jeff Friedland, a St. Clair County official, said he relies on “a roller coaster ride of information sharing” from Canada that too often breaks down.
Friedland serves as the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, a title that has varied a bit during his 26 years on the job. His county is situated on the front lines, about a quarter mile across the St. Clair from Chemical Valley. St. Clair County is home to several water plants from Port Huron south to Algonac, where the river flows into Lake St. Clair.
Given the “history of events” impacting downstream communities, Friedland said the region faces as much of an environmental threat as anywhere in the Great Lakes basin.
After years of trying to establish better communication with factories and government officials across the river, Friedland said he accomplished a breakthrough earlier this year: Shell and the Sarnia Police Department agreed to put him on the list of those notified immediately when a spill occurs.
Officials in downstream areas of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties are not on that list. They still rely on a bureaucratic chain of government alerts before they are told about possible threats to public health.