Changes are in the works following an incident last month at Shell’s Corunna refinery that led to a precautionary shelter-in-place for some residents due to reports of elevated benzene levels detected outside the plant.
“We had a meeting with Shell and talked about getting air quality monitors set up for our firehall in Corunna,” St. Clair Township Mayor Steve Arnold said. “So, we’ll be able to do air monitoring ourselves, with our fire guys. We don’t currently have that capacity.
“To me, that’s a real plus.”
The township has also expedited the repair of one of its alarm sirens – which currently only has four of eight horns in working order -- and fixed a glitch with another siren after it was discovered that it never sounded at all during the April 27 incident.
Officials said elevated levels of benzene were detected outside the plant around 5 p.m., when a CVECO Code 8 – which notifies emergency groups of an internal abnormal occurrence – was issued, followed by a shelter-in-place issued to the public around 6:20 p.m., and an all-clear just after 8 p.m.
“There’s always learning -- the main thing for us is keeping our people safe,” said Arnold, noting that many residents were notified of the shelter-in-place through the MyCNN (My Community Notification Network) system, an arm of CAER (Community Awareness and Emergency Response) that contacts subscribers through telephones, cell phones, email and text messages.
In fact, Community Emergency Management Coordinator Cal Gardiner pointed to an increase of more than 600 subscribers in the week following the incident. On average, about 10 new subscribers sign up each week.
Shell is continuing its investigation of the incident, said spokesperson Kristina Zimmer, noting that on and off-site air monitoring by Shell and a third-party company did not exceed the threshold for benzene exposure based on the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Exposure Limit.
“We are committed to working with the appropriate stakeholders and our neighbours to address potential gaps and overall improvements in the notification process,” Zimmer stated in an email.
Meanwhile, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley is hoping CAER officials will reconsider a motion to return the media’s access of CVECO (Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization) Code 8 alerts, which notify of a potential problem within a chemical valley plant.
“I asked them to look at it on a trial basis, for six months to a year,” said Bradley, noting that Code 8 incidents are often minor in nature, but when picked up by national media, can be blown out of proportion.
“And it impacts financially on them – that’s where issues have come in the past.”
In a recent radio broadcast, Blackburn news director Dave Dentinger said restricting media access to the Code 8 alert is a “glaring flaw in our public notification protocol.
“During the rollout of MyCNN – that does effectively reach thousands – industry seized the opportunity to shutout media when it comes to Code 8,” he said. “In the recent Shell incident, heading into understaffed hours, media could have been alerted to be on standby nearly a full hour before our services were suddenly called upon.”
Criticism also came from across the border when St. Clair County, Michigan’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security director pointed to both the Shell incident, and a recent Imperial Oil spill in the St. Clair River.
“I believe the formal notification system broke down,” Jeff Friedland told the Port Huron Times Herald. Following an April 19 spill of water containing hydrochloric acid from Imperial’s Sarnia site, Friedland said he wasn’t notified until about two days later.
“I’ve been here 26 years and this is the roller coaster we have – it works sometimes, it doesn’t other times.”