Island of Poison

CORPORATE MALFEASANCE and government neglect have led to the occurrence of a disproportionately high number of birth defects in children born on Walpole Island in Canada , indigenous residents of the island charge.

Approximately 2,000 people from the Ottawa, Pottawanamee and Ujibwe tribes live on Walpole Island, which is located at the mouth of the St. Clair River as it enters Lake St. Clair, just north of Detroit. The St. Clair River is an outlet of Lake Huron and serves as an international waterway and a source of water for commercial, industrial and domestic uses.

 Residents say they have suffered from the effects of chemical spills from nearby "Chemical Valley" in Sarnia, Ontario. Dow Chemical , DuPont , Ethyl Chemical , Polysar , Novacore , Imperial Oil , Shell Oil and Esso Petroleum and Chemical all operate in Sarnia. Chemicals discharged into the St. Clair include mercury, chlorinated organics, volatile hydrocarbons, PCBs and lead.

"Since 1986, [the companies] average 100 spills a week," says Mike Williams of the Walpole Island Heritage Center. "When there's a serious [spill], we've had to shut down our water treatment plant." Since 1986, the island has had to shut down the treatment plant 16 times because of extreme water contamination.

 "There's no question that the island community has a very high incidence of birth defects and there's a very high incidence of cancer," says Joe Cummins, a professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario.

 The Province of Ontario convened a panel to investigate the spills' impact on the health - particularly reproductive health - of people in the St. Clair area. The panel released the St. Clair River Reproductive Health Study last year. It concluded that the rate of birth defects in the St. Clair River area was no higher than the Provincial average, according to Layne Zerbeek, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health.

 Cummins, however, charges that the panel purposefully refrained from studying health effects on Walpole in order to minimize the amount of adverse health effects recorded. "The evidence is clear that the incidence of birth defects on the island is excessive, but [the panel] excluded Walpole [from the study] because that would give the study positive results, and they did not want positive results," Cummins says.

 The panel looked into hospital databases to determine provincial birth defect rates, and then broke down Southwest Ontario by region. Researchers made phone calls to families of children with birth defects to obtain additional information.

 Zerbeek says that the study did not look beyond regions. "They did not get into specifics like Walpole Island, tiny little areas like that," Zerbeek says. "They could have phoned to Walpole Island but that doesn't come out in the data."

 One reason residents of Walpole Island may be affected by the chemical pollution to a greater extent than residents in the surrounding area is that much of their diet consists of locally caught fish, duck, muskrat, deer and miscellaneous wild meats. According to an island study, 91 percent of the community consumes wild meat. Wild game contaminated by pollutants may pass on toxics to the residents of the island.

 The marshes and wetlands at the mouth of the St. Clair River, the St. Clair flats and the complex of islands around Walpole Island are one of the most unique and valuable eco-regions in the Great Lakes and North America, according to the St. Clair River International Citizens Network, a public interest group working to reduce pollution from Chemical Valley.

 The region has more than 34,000 acres of wetlands, mostly in the Flats-Walpole area, and is home to diverse wildlife, including the bald eagle, lake sturgeon, prairie fringed orchid, eastern fox snake, eastern massassauga rattlesnake and the black rat snake.

 "The river water, fish habitat and sediment have been impaired due to the discharge of nutrients and toxic substances from industrial and municipal point sources, nonpoint sources and inplace pollutants," according to the 1989 Report on Great Lakes Water Quality, issued by the International Joint Commission. "The marsh acts as a big sponge and soaks in all the contaminants," says Williams.

Fish advisories for the river and Lake St. Clair have increased in recent years. Swimming advisories have been placed intermittently on beaches in Sarnia Bay and just downstream of Ontario Hydro's Lambton Generating Station, according to Williams.

 "The fish are diseased - some have large sores on them," says Ed Isaac, a Walpole resident. "This year I noticed that not only are a lot of fish diseased, but they are also deformed."

 "We think it's scandalous that these spills just go on constantly," John Jackson of the Citizens Network says. Earlier this year, Walpole residents closed down the island for a day and demonstrated in downtown Sarnia at Polysar, one of the chemical companies responsible for recent spills.

 The Canadian and U.S. governments have been slow to respond to the situation and have only recently published a report on contamination of the St. Clair. No clean-up activity plan has been drawn up or implemented.

 "They haven't got to a discussion of what the clean-up plan will be - there has only been discussion of what the problem is," says Jackson.

 According to Jackson, the Canadian government's solution to the problem is to construct a pipeline from the clean water in Lake Huron, past "Chemical Valley," to Walpurg, Canada and Walpole Island.

"Even if you don't drink the contaminated water, people are still eating contaminated food, particularly people on Walpole Island," Jackson says. "I think it's disgusting that taxpayers pay money for a pipeline when it should be the responsibility of the company to stop spilling stuff into the river."n


- Ben Lilliston