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Shelter-in-place order for Corunna a ‘precaution’

Shell’s refinery at Corunna manufactures gasoline, solvents, chemicals and other products. The World Health Organization says human exposure to benzene has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and aplastic anemia.

By Paul Morden, Sarnia Observer: Thursday, April 28, 2016

A phone call from a neighbour of Shell’s refinery in Corunna alerted the company to an incident that resulted in a shelter-in-place advisory being issued Wednesday evening for a section of the St. Clair Township community.

It also led to emergency sirens sounding in Sarnia, and the activating of a community network notification system that sent out thousands of messages to Sarnia-Lambton residents.

Shell spokesperson Kristina Zimmer said that at approximately 4 p.m. Wednesday, “ A resident that lives on Curran Avenue had smelled this abnormal odour, and had called the site to notify us.”

Zimmer said there is a procedure Shell follows when a call like that comes in.

“Our shift supervisor would immediately go out and conduct the necessary rounds, and air monitoring,” she said.

At approximately 5 p.m., elevated benzene readings were detected south of the plant, according to the company.

Just after 5 p.m., Shell issued a Code 8 through the Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization (CVECO), a group made up of industries and municipalities in and around Chemical Valley.

A Code 8 notifies members of the organization of an internal abnormal occurrence at an industry.

That was followed at 6:15 p.m. with a Code 6, asking Lambton OPP to shut down traffic in a section of Corunna, and the issuing of the shelter-in-place notice advising residents in that area of the community to stay inside, close windows and shut off their heating and cooling systems.

Zimmer said Shell recommended to the St. Clair Township Fire officials that a shelter-in-place advisory be issued.

“They make the call for the go-ahead for that to happen, through CVECO,” she said.

The shelter-in-place and traffic controls were for an area in Corunna at Hill Street and the St. Clair Parkway, LaSalle Road and the parkway, and Beckwith to Bentick streets.

Steve Bicum, deputy fire chief in St. Clair, said the shelter-in-place advisory was a “completely precautionary measure” while the source of the odour was being investigated by Shell.

The levels of benzene detected Wednesday were below the point where they would be a threat to human life, he said.

Shell’s refinery at Corunna manufactures gasoline, solvents, chemicals and other products.

The World Health Organization says human exposure to benzene has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and aplastic anemia.

Bicum said computer plume modeling software indicated to company and fire officials what area of the community the shelter-in-place should be issued for.

“We never want to have to inconvenience the public in any way, but I think we responded in a responsible manner where we had a concern for public safety, and we wanted to confirm what the situation was,” Bicum said.

“We wanted to keep everyone safe.”

Corunna has three emergency sirens and they were activated during the incident. Thursday, the township was following up on reports it received that one siren located behind the Corunna Fire Station didn’t sound Wednesday evening.

“We’ve got maintenance crews dispatched to take a look at that, and see if there was an issue,” Bicum said.

At 8:10 p.m. Wednesday, the decision was made to lift the shelter-in-place advisory, and remove the traffic controls, “once that we were able to confirm that there was no hazard to the community,” Bicum said.

As well as the sirens, a MyCNN community notification system was activated, as was the township’s own Alert FM system, for residents in the Corunna area.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach to make sure we get as many people notified of a situation, as we can,” Bicum said.

Shell said later Wednesday evening the source of the odour had been located at the site, and was being investigated.

A Code 8 remained in place Thursday morning at Shell, Zimmer said.

“We are still investigating yesterday’s incident,” she added.

Air monitoring has continued and results, since the all-clear, have come back normal with no benzene detected, according to Zimmer.

She said the company has been communicating with Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change about the incident.

Zimmer said she wanted to apologize, on behalf of Shell, for any inconvenience its neighbours experienced.

“The safety of our community, and our workers and employees, is our number one priority,” Zimmer said.

“You never, as a site, as a business, want to have to go to the point of recommending a shelter-in-place, but the safety of the community was top of mind.”

Dean Edwardson, general manager of Community Awareness Emergency Response-CVECO, said emergency sirens in the community were sounded during the incident, including sirens in neighbouring Sarnia.

“The policy simply is, because we live in a mobile society, the sirens go off to notify people that something is happening,” Edwardson said.

In this case, it was also a way to alert members of the public who may be have been planning to travel to Corunna.

“We will have thorough debrief and assessment of the incident, what went well and what we could do better,” Edwardson said.

When the sirens sound, the emergency system advises residents to tune in to the local radio news for more information, he said.

“We’re fortunate these things are not common, but they do happen from time to time and people should make themselves aware of what their response should be to protect themselves,” Edwardson said.

Information on what residents should do in an emergency is posted on the website

Meanwhile, the public is also being encouraged to attend this year’s annual Emergency Preparedness Day, May 6, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Clearwater Arena in Sarnia.

Admission is free, and more than 90 displays are expected to be set up.

Edwardson said the MyCNN system reached out to “26,000 data points” Wednesday, sending phone, e-mail and text messages to residents of the area.

“From that standpoint, we think the MyCNN communication tool worked fairly well,” he said.

Local residents are able to sign up for MyCNN alerts through the website.

Gal Gardner, the City of Sarnia’s emergency management coordinator, said the city physically activates sirens in Sarnia, Point Edward, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and St. Clair Township when that call is made by emergency officials. That arrangement was put in place because Sarnia operates a 24-hour communication centre.

The policy is to sound all of the sirens “because the wind can change at any given time,” Gardner said.

“From our end, we believe it went fairly well,” he said.

One challenge local emergency officials face is that they are no longer able to directly interrupt local radio and television services to alert the community with messages, he said.

“Now we have to go through a provincial system, but it takes significantly longer to do,” Gardner said.

There was a technical glitch Wednesday evening when the city police website was overwhelmed by members of the public looking for information, he said.

“Our IT guys are already looking at it,” Gardner said.

Another communications glitch happened when the St. Clair fire department sent out a Twitter message announcing the all-clear. It referred residents to the CAER industry information line, 1-8554SARNIA.

But, in the Tweet it was listed as a 1-888 number, which connects to Gorges Volvo, a car dealership in Omaha, Nebraska. 

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