The Keele Street Tank Farm: A report from Sentinel Road

The Keele St. Tank Farm: A report from Sentinel Road

Justin Podur and I first wrote this in February 2012.  This piece concerns a downstream facility across from York University that stores fuel used at Toronto filling stations, via Montreal refineries and elsewhere. We intend to write more “reports from Sentinel Road” on matters of shared interest.  On a different end of the production chain, hearings concerning  Shell’s proposed Jackpine Mine Expansion in Alberta are  ongoing. Having recently returned ‘downstream’ from those hearings in Fort McMurray, it seems apt to post this now; more on those hearings  in a subsequent post.

Justin Podur and Anna Zalik

February 15, 2012, Updated: November, 2012

In July 2010, the Toronto Transit Commission recommended that City Council exempt a petroleum tank farm on Keele Street from a 1954 by-law that prevents oil and gas trucks from traveling over subway lines (1). Today, plans for the subway extension to York University intersect with the Keele Street tank farms of Imperial Oil/Esso, Shell and Suncor. The TTC’s recommendation for an exemption is based on improvements to truck safety since 1954. And as “the tank farms won’t be going anywhere” anyway, it is also practical to change the rules. City Council agreed – in August 2010 they granted the exemption (2). See  and This also involved re-design of nearby roads to accommodate tanker traffic.

The tank farm, for those who don’t live near it or pass it on the way to work or school in the morning, is owned by a who’s who of Canadian petroleum interests: Imperial Oil and Imperial Oil pipelines, Shell Oil, Sun-Canadian Pipe Line Company, Trans-Northern Pipelines Inc., Enbridge Pipelines (3). Built in the 1940s, the facility stores fuel that ultimately supplies local filling stations (3a).

The debate between the TTC and City Councillors concerned risks of spills, collisions, explosions, and fires (4). Proponents argue that the facilities are too expensive to move and the risk of an explosion is below acceptable levels.

But petrochemical facilities raise other concerns – for example, toxicity. In 1991, Health and Welfare Canada (HWC) investigators raised concerns of contamination of fruit and vegetables grown near the tank farms. A toxicologist from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy sampled fruits, vegetables, and soil on September 23, 1991 and found no evidence of contamination beyond slightly elevated levels of lead – again, like the acceptable levels of explosion risk, the lead was found to be below acceptable thresholds (5).

Even if all of the analyses to date have found the tank farm’s risks to be in the acceptable range, it would be nice to know much more about it. How does it benefit the city, and the local community – what are the benefits to be weighed against these acceptable risks? How have toxicity analyses come out in the 20 years since the 1991 study?

A 2003 Map produced by The Toronto Environmental Alliance illustrates a high concentration of industries releasing toxic chemicals in Toronto’s North West and North East, with a significant mark for the area that comprises the Tank Farm detailed in the tables linked here. If we compare this map to material from the Color of Poverty project, we note a correlation between communities of lower income, racialized communities and toxic chemicals. From the perspective of the literature on Environmental Justice, this is unsurprising. Our review of the National Pollutants Release Inventory for the past 10 years, indicates an overall increase in the air contaminants released over time from the Imperial Oil, Shell Canada Products and Suncor facilities for the years up until 2009. The  data for the Shell Facility indicates a 23% increase in VOCs released between 2009 to 2010, from 39 to 48 tonnes.

Also of note –  these facilities are likely to store fuel imported from a range of controversial sites.

One possibility for an updated study: using toxicity and safety risk metrics from comparable facilities elsewhere, analyze the problem spatially – what buffer is required for safety from possible spills and explosions? Who lives within that buffer? What risks are posed by the pipeline network, and what might the role of alternative energy be in the future – could this facility be decommissioned? From where are the products at these locations sourced and what socio-environmental conflicts (problems) do we find at the other end of the production chain?



1) David Nickle, July 15, 2010. “Oil tankers slide closer to Keele and Finch: Council to review bylaw banning oil and gas trucks from intersection”. Accessed February 15, 2012.

2) Toronto City Council Minutes for August 25, 26, 27, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2012

3) City of Toronto. Bus-Only Lanes Downsview Station to York University Class Environmental Assessment. Accessed February 15, 2012.

3a). Brian Gray. 2008 “The City Cannot Run on Empty”. Toronto Sun. August 18, p5. Accessed November 15, 2012.

4) Toronto Transit Commission. July 14, 2010. Report: Transportation of Inflammable Liquids Over Subways – City of Toronto By-Law Exemption. Accessed February 15, 2012.

5) J. Craig Kinch. 1991. Phytotoxicology Assessment Survey in the vicinity of the Shell, Petro-Canada and Imperial Oil Petroleum Tank Farms, Toronto – 1991. ARB-251-92-Phyto. Accessed February 15, 2012.