Forgotten spaces, it would seem, are everywhere.
A prosperous industrial city of 70,000 people just 300km south of Toronto, the Canadian city of Sarnia is to petrochemicals what Detroit once was to automobiles. The city hosts the country’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants (about 40%), as well as the largest toxic waste dump. There are about 62 large industrial facilities in total, most of them concentrated within about 5km, earning the surrounding area the nickname “Chemical Valley”.
The area has become one of the most polluted hotspots in Canada. In the year 2000, industry in the Sarnia area reported the highest toxic air releases in the country. Over the past decade an emerging epidemic of cancers related to asbestos, benzene, and other workplace toxins has quietly rocked this close community. Yet despite the best efforts of some widows and workers, the crisis has for the most part failed to give rise to any meaningful political struggle against industry practices. Building trade workers cite their bosses as among their best allies and the plants as the places they feel most at home, while some unions have even lobbied for relaxed emissions standards.
A thriving petrochemical industry was established in the Sarnia area in the mid-19th century, following the discovery of petroleum “gum beds” in the area. The abundance of crude oil and the proximity to the United States and a major steamship route made Sarnia an ideal site for doing business. The economy boomed: the city had the highest standard of living in the country in the 1970s, with a per capita disposable income 35% greater than the national average. In the 80s and 90s this job security came under the same kind of threat being felt across the continent. Sarnia’s petrochemical plants joined other industries in the 80s and 90s trends of downsizing, outsourcing, and implementation of lean production methods that increased pressure on workers. Detroit is just across the river from Sarnia and the example it sets is ever present: the economic, physical, and social devastation of a place that’s lost its industrial base.
In this short video we hear from Pat McLaughlin, a lifelong steamfitter who in 2010 succumbed, like his brother-in-law and many friends, to mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Text and video by Brett Story (Geography and Planning, University of Toronto). The video is from footage produced during the making of her feature documentary film Land of Destiny. Brett’s review of Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s film The Forgotten Space (Amsterdam: Doc.Eye Film and Vienna: WILDart FILM, 2010) will be published in Antipode 44(4) – see here.