The city of Sarnia contains 20 per cent of the country's refineries, hosts Canada's largest hazardous-waste dump and produces 40 per cent of the country's petrochemicals. These industries also happened to have a history of using asbestos for purposes such as insulating pipes, and downplaying the associated risks.
Holmes Blunt Limited was a foundry established in 1918 by John S. Blunt. The Sarnia foundry's primary area of manufacture was engine casting blocks and brake linings but it also had two other areas of business besides the foundry – Caposite Insulation and Holmes Insulation Plant.
Workers at the foundry were part of the United Auto Workers union however Holmes management fought to keep the Caposite Insulation plant free from unionization – which they were successful in achieving. As a result of lack of union protection the working conditions in the asbestos plant were unsafe. Management would also downplay worker's concerns about asbestos and ignore health recommendations from the Ontario government.
The property was dirty and unsanitary, it contained no ventilation, no showers, no sanitary toilets, and no lunchroom. The plant manager refused to negotiate for toilets, showers, and a first aid room. On March 2, 1937 approximately 70 European immigrant workers took part in a sit-down strike in front of their machines to protest the company's refusal to recognize their new union. Approximately 300 Sarnia citizens descended on the property to forcibly remove the striking workers through violence. The police stood but did nothing to stop the assaults, and even charged some of the strikers with trespassing upon their removal from the property.
As early as 1952, Ministry of Health inspections conducted at Holmes Foundry raised concerns about "silica, noise and smoke". Over several years the Holmes Foundry would ignore the recommendations for improvement made by the Ministry of Health.
In 1958 Government inspectors discovered the asbestos level in the Caposite Plant to be 28 times above existing standards, but made no improvements and another nine years passed before the plant was inspected again in 1967.
When the government inspectors finally returned in 1967, they estimated the total production at the Caposite plant at 10,000 pounds per day of asbestos insulation. The government inspectors took 34 air samples, of which only 5 were below the legal limit then in place. The average sample was 2.7 times the standard of the day. By Ontario's current standards, there were samples that were 1890 times higher than today's legal limit.
The Ministry of Health issued nine directions to the Holmes company however they were neither followed up on nor enforced.
Only in 1968 did government inspectors begin to sample for the actual measure of silica dust. At that time, the silica levels were found to be as high as ten times over the legal limit.
Between 1972 and 1973 the Ministry issued 29 Orders/Directions, in response to exposures that reached as high as 852fibres/c.c., which is 8520 times over the current Ontario limit of 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (c.c.) of air.
Finally, in 1973, the Ministry issued an Order to "cease" production at the facilities, only to discover on their follow-up visit that the company had ignored the Order.
Women who washed their husbands work clothes at home also suffered health effects such as scarring on their lungs due to inhalation of asbestos fibers.
In January of 1966 the American Motors Corporation (AMC) purchased 25% of the operations and acquired the remainer in July of 1970. The Caposite Insulation plant closed in 1974 and the Holmes Insulation plant moved to a different location.
In 1987 the Ministry of Labour commissioned a health study to judge the effects of the extremely high levels of asbestos exposure that Holmes workers experienced. The findings of the study were staggering. There was a 600% increase in lung cancer mortality among the Holmes workers exposed to asbestos for two years or more, an 11,000% increase in respiratory disease mortality and five cases of mesothelioma cited among former Holmes workers.
Today establishing ownership of the foundry is a bit of a tangled web. It was closed by Chrysler on September 16, 1988 and the company spent $7 million on an environmental cleanup. Following the cleanup, the Chrysler received a certificate from Ontario's Ministry of Environment confirming the land had been decommissioned in accordance with all requirements. The land was then purchased by a local realtor named John D'Andrea however Mr. D'Andrea ended up going to jail for defrauding his shareholders of profits from the sale.
Around 2003 the Chippewas of the Thames purchased the foundry property. Currently the First Nation band is seeking litigation to obtain more funding from Chrysler to further clean up the property.
Today the property is heavily graffitied, gutted and an eyesore to the community.
Ministry of Labour
Globe and Mail March 13, 2004
On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919-1949
The Canadian Forum volume 78