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St. Clair County demands joint emergency alert system with Ontario

Lisa Pugliano Mrowiac
Fire at Imperial Oil chemical factory in Sarnia, Ontario

Thursday's fire at a Sarnia chemical plant left some St. Clair County residents frightened and desperate for information, says St. Clair County Emergency Manager Jeff Friedland.

But it wasn't until two hours after the fire broke out that he was given any information about the fire.

In the meantime, people in Port Huron, some of whom were 400 yards away from the fire, were wildly speculating on social media and wondering if they should evacuate.

"There were so many false reports, things that were not occurring." says Friedland. "Combine that with no official information, and residents felt the sky was falling."

In fact, the situation was not serious, according to Imperial Oil, which owns the factory.  Due to an "internal operating problem," says Imperial Oil spokesman Jon Harding, the company had to do additional flaring to burn off gas.

Shortly after that happened, a grass fire was discovered nearby, off Imperial Oil property.  Harding says it's not known yet if the grass fire was started by the flares.

The fire certainly looked dramatic from across the river, in large part due to the flares and grass fire being reflected in steam from the plant. It looked as if the whole factory was on fire. 

Here's a video from Port Huron resident Lisa Pugliano Mrowiec:

But Harding says no one was injured, and the response was swift. He says the company notified Canadian authorities within 20 minutes of the flaring event, and issued an update 40 minutes later.

The problem, says Emergency Manager Friedland, is those updates take too long to make their way from  agencies in Toronto, to agencies in Lansing, to agencies on the ground where the event is happening.

"If there's a vapor release, and it takes even 20 minutes to make that notification, we're gonna have people dying," says Friedland.

He says his agency has been asking Ontario to agree to a cross-border emergency notification system (one that would also notify Ontario residents about emergencies on the U.S. side of the border) for nearly 30 years, to no avail.

Now, he's hoping some public pressure might get some action. 

The St. Clair Emergency Management Department is urging people who live along the St. Clair River to contact Ontario's CAER agency (Communitity Awareness Emergency Response) and demand better communication with their U.S. neighbors about emergencies.

From St. Clair Be Ready Facebook page:

Take a minute and email the CAER organization (admin@slea.ca) and tell them the system is broken and needs to be fixed ..... including the Michigan – Ontario notification system. Only 400 yards separate us locally and we cannot afford any time delay in the notification process.

An official from Canada's Public Safety Department was not immediately available to comment, nor was an official with the CAER agency.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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