Ring of toxicity around core safeguards jobs for those unemployable in information age. Photos By Cheol Joon Baek (Left) / Berge Arabian (Right)
There's no more appropriate place to hear of an explosion back home than at an American airport.
I got word by way of a brief CNN news ticker teaser: Explosions in Toronto. The info never appeared again onscreen but lingered in my mind like a plane in turbulent skies. So I turned to quelling the paranoia - mine specifically, and America's generally - with overpriced lounge coffee.
When did we have to start removing our shoes for security? They're busy looking for the Agent 86s of the world when there's more cause for concern over jet fuel emissions or the business practices of certain first-class passengers.
Are we paying attention to the right things?
When I finally saw the spectacular footage of the Sunrise Propane fire and explosions, my first thought was of all the toxins in that black smoke rising like the sinewy forearm of some angry behemoth.
My second thought: most of this stuff was going to be burned off anyway, just not all at once. Pollution is really a slow-motion explosion, a gradual, controlled release of the considerable powers contained within modern fuels.
We've accepted the resulting toxicity as the price paid for comfort because everyone else pays it, too. But when industrial disasters occur, we're not just shocked but indignant, as if civilization were a lottery we thought we'd keep on winning.
Two days after the Sunrise conflagration, there were industrial explosions in Wilson, Wisconsin, in Culver City, California, and at a Kuwaiti oil refinery. Eight days earlier, a tank of sulphur dioxide in Houston ruptured, hospitalizing five.
In February, eight were killed when a sugar factory - a sugar factory - exploded in the state of Georgia. Last year, a propane railcar exploded in Oneida, New York, necessitating a 1-mile-radius evacuation.
In 2005, 15 died in a refinery explosion in Texas. Lest we forget, an underground gas line also exploded in Etobicoke in 2003, killing seven. And in 1979 a propane tanker derailed in North York, causing a fire to which the latest one has been compared.
On August 10, on Murray Road, the odds simply came calling. This isn't to dismiss residents' anger or their demand that the planning department keep neighbourhoods separate from volatile industry. It's only to say that the matter goes well beyond zoning.
As we have learned, Toronto's propane storage facilities (which differ from gas stations in that propane is not naturally a liquid and has to be heavily pressurized) number in the hundreds. We can never make such facilities entirely safe; we can only play the odds. That means facing some tough questions about our relationship with technologies of convenience and about the relationship between city planning and the class system.
What I mean is that discussions about the gamble of industrial zoning might go very differently if, when the odds came calling, we were all likely to get a knock on the door.
When I first heard where the explosion occurred, I couldn't help seeing in my mind's eye the vast dystopic Petro Canada storage facility up the road a couple of kilometres from Sunrise, with which any rider of the 196 or 106 bus is familiar.
It's kind of a symbol of this area straddling wards 8 and 9, where low-income households are wedged between industrial sites, not because they particularly want to be, but because it's what they can afford.
The average household income in the area is $48,125, $21,000 less than the city average. The nosy (and noisy) empowered downtown intelligentsia don't generally hang out up there. Many of us are now familiar with the ring of poverty that surrounds the core, but we'd do well to remember that there's an equivalent - older - ring of industrial toxicity of a more or less similar shape.
As shock gave way to determination, some of the wayward blame came to land on the province. It was Queen's Park, we were reminded, that through the Ontario Municipal Board gave in to lobbying and quashed municipal attempts to regulate propane facilities through zoning.
But at the same time, attempts to move facilities like Sunrise could weaken the city's "employment lands strategy," which protects industrial zones to maintain secondary-sector jobs within Toronto.
That policy is often challenged at the OMB by residential developers. Those jobs are a way to offer employment to those who, qualified or not, aren't seen as employable in the so-called "information economy" (translation: the industrial economy behind a nice curtain).
If people want the city to push for new planning powers from the province, then that demand can't stop at one particular zoning privilege over one kind of industry, but needs to extend to real planning autonomy. One clear tool the city needs is the ability to directly mandate affordable housing in new downtown or mixed-income 'hoods in the outskirts - something it can only do now in rare cases.
If we didn't design our city so the most hazardous industries end up in communities too stressed and short on resources to organize against them, and if the truly enfranchised wards found they were also facing the possibility of another Sunrise, we might find we were suddenly eager to deal with questions of technology and toxicity, not to mention what kind of jobs we want.
Of course, when council gets such powers, we will then need to hold it, not the province, to account. As we've learned, nothing changes its state without being put under pressure.
TIMELINE OF TRAGEDY
1986 Propane explosion at a Weston Road taxi garage
1987 The former city of York (now North York) drafts a bylaw to zone propane facilities outside of residential neighbourhoods
1991 Toronto drafts a bylaw regulating propane
1995 The Ontario Court of Appeal rules against York's bylaw, to the delight of the province
1999 OMB ruling quashes the Toronto zoning bylaw
1999 Harris Tories hand over monitoring of propane to the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, thus ending direct government responsibility
2004 Sunrise Propane opens its Murray Road site
2006 Sunrise is issued a "cease and desist" for safety violations by the TSSA but is allowed to conduct business as usual
2008 Aug 10, Sunrise explosion