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Great Lakes pollution: What is the Sarnia Blob?

Bacteria-laden beaches, lakes choked with algae and fish contaminated by industrial waste: these have been symptoms of pollution in the Great Lakes since the late 1950s. With growing threats to drinking water, wildlife populations and human health, governments on both sides of the border took action to reverse the Lakes' decline in the 1970s. Today they supply water to one-third of all Canadians and one-seventh of all Americans. Under the watchful eyes of scientists and environmentalists, the Lakes are slowly becoming great again.

Is it oozing toxic waste or just a stubborn solvent spill? Nine days ago a mysterious oily glob was spotted under the St. Clair River near Sarnia in a part of Ontario dubbed the Chemical Valley. The river, linking lakes Huron and Erie, is dotted with chemical companies. It also supplies drinking water to 160,000 people on both sides of the border. A reporter for CBC's Sunday Morning talks to a family that's relying on bottled water these days.

One of the chemical companies reported a spill of perchlorethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent, in August 1985, and there's evidence it's part of the blob. But some geologists believe the blob is also composed of chemical waste oozing upwards from underground wells. 
. In August 1985 about 11,000 litres of perchlorethylene ("perc" for short) spilled into the St. Clair River due to a faulty valve on a pipeline belonging to Dow Chemical.
. Because perc is heavier than water, it settled in a great mass at the bottom of the river. Steve Bolt, an environmental control manager at Dow, told Maclean's the perc "'just did its job' — picking up other chemical contaminants in the river sediments."

. The resulting "blob" — a name given it by the news media — consisted of 18 chemicals including deadly dioxin. It was discovered Sept. 27, 1985, and cleanup began almost two months later.
. It took Dow about a month to vacuum up the blob and cost about $1 million — a considerable increase over the original estimate of $100,000.
. The recovered material was placed in a protective pond at Dow and some of the chemicals were recycled.

. Though nearby residents were concerned chemicals would be agitated during the cleanup, they were reassured that their water was "probably the most thoroughly scrutinized of any water supply in North America."
. In December 1985 Maclean's reported that the spill was "only one of 11 accidental discharges of liquid or gas at Dow Chemical this year."
. There were also 275 such spills near Sarnia in the ten years from 1975 to 1985.

. In 1985 the "Chemical Valley" near Sarnia, Ont. consisted of 13 factories producing petrochemicals, glass and plastics.
. According to the Globe and Mail, as of 2004 the area produces about 40 per cent of the country's petrochemicals and is home to about 20 per cent of its refineries. Sarnia, a city with a population of about 70,000, is also the site of Ontario's only commercial hazardous-waste facility.

. The town of Wallaceburg, Ont., discussed in this clip, continues to experience threats to its water supply. In February 2004 residents were angered by the second chemical spill into the St. Clair River in six months. Water intake pipes on the river were shut down and the community relied on reserved water and supplies from nearby communities for two days before the water was declared safe.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: Nov. 10, 1985
Guest(s): Jim Bradley, Joseph Cummins, Hank Don, Ken Hill, Mike Sklash, Doug Steen, Alla Steen
Host: Susan Reisler, Christopher Thomas
Reporter: Alannah Campbell
Duration: 11:27

Last updated: February 14, 2012

Page consulted on January 23, 2014

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