Sarnia emergency plan born in aftermath of Polymer blast 70 years ago

View of Horton Spheres storing butadiene and styrene, two chief ingredients of buna-S synthetic rubber at the Polymer Corporation plant. September 1944. (Photo by Ronny Jaques. National Film Board of Canada)

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of a Chemical Valley blast that lit up the sky and shattered every window within a two-kilometre radius.

Sarnia Historical Society Editor-In-Chief Phil Egan said the Polymer explosion the night of May 6, 1951 would change Sarnia’s emergency preparedness forever.

Egan said Sarnia didn’t even have a traffic unit at the time, and the Polymer police force was bigger than the Sarnia force.

Egan said at around 10:30 p.m. operators noticed a larger than usual discharge from the flare at the plant, and shortly after there was a powerful explosion at the extraction unit.

“Before they had a chance to do anything, there was an enormous explosion,” said Egan. “They say that the blast could be heard from as far away as Windsor and London, and it completely set up a red glow in the sky that could be seen from 130 kilometres away.”

Egan said the force of the blast shifted buildings off of their foundations in the village of Bluewater directly across the road from Polymer, and there was chaos in the City of Sarnia that had a population of about 35,000 at the time.

“People thought initially that the city had been hit by an atomic bomb. So literally half of the city fled and the other half wanted to see what was going on and actually made their way down to the Polymer plant, clogging all of the roads.”

Police had to untangle the roads so emergency vehicles could get down to the fire.

“Fortunately, a lot of the plants responded with their own fire departments, and the fire itself was brought under control fairly quickly — it burned until the next morning but it was under control within an hour.”

Remarkably, Egan said there weren’t any fatalities or even injuries reported.

“And that was the lucky thing about it because you compare it, for example, to the Beirut explosion which killed 207 people and injured thousands. We were very fortunate, but we had some pretty skilled process operators at the plant who were able to react quickly.”

Egan said a safety emergency organization was quickly created for the city in the immediate aftermath.

“The following day after the Polymer explosion, executives from the major plants in the Valley met and created CVECO, which still exists today, the Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization. And today, 70 years later, the city has a full-time emergency manager.”

Egan noted that in 1951, the Chemical Valley was really starting to expand.

“Fiberglas had come in 1947, Canadian oil was building the city’s second refinery, DOW Chemical was in town. It was a small Valley but it was growing, and it was growing quickly, but there was no emergency plan until after the Polymer explosion.”

Egan said emergency planning has come a long way over the past 70 years.

“It was night and day, night and day. The city certainly wasn’t prepared in 1951, we certainly are today.”

Egan said that’s been evident during the current pandemic, with the city quickly mobilizing a field hospital at the college, as a precaution.