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The Sarnia port remains an important centre for lake freighters and oceangoing ships (known as "salties") carrying cargoes of grain and petroleum products.
The natural port and the salt caverns that exist in the surrounding areas, coupled with the oil discovered in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 led to the massive growth of the petroleum industry in this area. Since Oil Springs was the first place in Canada and North America to drill commercially for oil, the knowledge that was acquired there and strengthened in Sarnia led to Sarnians traveling the world teaching other nations how to drill for oil. The complex of refining and chemical companies, called Chemical Valley and located south of downtown Sarnia, once adorned the back of the Canadian ten-dollar bill. Sarnia has the highest level of particulates air pollution of any Canadian city. Forty-five percent of this comes from Chemical Valley, and the rest comes from the neighbouring United States. The Canada Wide Daily Standard for MP2.5 is 30 micrograms per cubic meter. This standard was exceeded on one day during 2011.