Kirkland Lake Eyes Hazardous Waste Plant

BILL ENOUY IS PROUD of his town. Oh, the jolly looking mayor of KIRKLAND LAKE, Ont., knows the main street needs a facelift, and that something should be done about the shortage of family physicians.

Kirkland Lake Eyes Hazardous Waste Plant

BILL ENOUY IS PROUD of his town. Oh, the jolly looking mayor of KIRKLAND LAKE, Ont., knows the main street needs a facelift, and that something should be done about the shortage of family physicians. But touring the area in his cream-coloured family van, Enouy has high praise for the efforts of the townspeople to revitalize their Northern Ontario community. He speaks fondly of "partnerships," and is quick to note success stories hidden among the For Sale signs. "This used to be a Dominion store," he says, pointing to a lot now containing a lumber and hardware store. "Course, they went under. Right away, we had this guy move in and it's doing really well. We're not totally friggin' out of it." It's only as Enouy turns toward the sparsely populated "environmental solutions park" that he gets so agitated he's forced to pull over to the side of the road.

The issue at stake is, once again, waste. Kirkland Lake, barely recovered from a devastating fight over the aborted plan to dump Toronto's garbage into the abandoned Adams Mine, is now at odds over another disposal project. Farmers, surrounding communities and some local residents are alarmed by a proposal to build a plant to treat soil contaminated by industries, from across the country and beyond, through an incineration process. Concerns that PCBs and other suspected carcinogens will make their way into the farmlands and water have divided friends, family and the medical community. A town that once flourished on gold mining has its hopes pinned on "environmental solutions" that critics see as environmental nightmares.

Kirkland Lake is a place that refuses to give up. First, the gold mines closed - for a small town built to support those mines, that's usually a fatal blow. At its height in the mid-1930s the community boasted 24,000 residents; now it has fewer than 8,600. Then there was the Adams Mine debacle. Friends and family clashed over the proposal. In protest over the planned dump, people moved away, shops closed and ultimately the deal fell through, at least for the time being. Now, the beleaguered town is up in arms once more, fighting with neighbouring communities about - the description depends on whom you ask - a PCB waste incinerator or a thermal oxidizer that remediates contaminated soil. "Times are rough," says Serge Barrette, 38, owner of Pet Pantry, located in the middle of several empty stores on Government Road, Kirkland Lake's main street. "We need people here. We need jobs."

The proposal is simple enough: Oakville, Ont.-based Bennett Environmental Inc. wants to build a large soil-treatment facility in the environmental solutions park on the edge of town. The company would process up to 200,000 tonnes of what it calls "HAZARDOUS WASTE impacted" soil (and solids picked up with the soil such as concrete, wood and steel). That, essentially, means dirt mixed with pesticides, wood preservatives, creosote, PCBs, coal tars, solvents and herbicides. Gathered from places such as Arctic defence radar sites, wood preservative plants and steel mills, the soil goes through a primary combustion chamber, or kiln, where temperatures as high as 800° C vaporize organic molecules, eliminating most contaminants. Residual gases go to a second combustion chamber. Whatever is left over at the end - sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, carbon dioxide - is tested and must meet emission standards before being released into the environment. This process, for the town, would create 35 to 38 jobs.

Before Bennett can start building, however, the plan must be approved by the provincial environment ministry. A wrench was thrown into the company's proposal on Nov. 1, when the ministry issued a deficiency statement after government officials found errors, omissions and inconsistencies in the environmental assessment. Late last week the company voluntarily withdrew its application, saying it plans to fix the gaps and re-submit the 2,500-page assessment sometime next spring. "The game's not over yet - Kirkland Lake is a good fit for our company," says Danny Ponn, vice-president and chief operations officer at Bennett. "We're not giving up that easily."

But the company might not be a good fit for Kirkland Lake. "The town has imploded," says Charlie Angus, editor of HighGrader magazine and spokesman for Public Concern Temiskaming, a well-organized anti-waste group that cut its teeth on the Adams Mine issue. "Town council has tied themselves to something that really is a form of cancer in the town, literally and economically." If anything goes wrong, the group says, PCBs will enter the environment through groundwater, air or when trucks full of nasty solids are trundling up the highway. The citizens' group also abhors Kirkland Lake's plan to become what Enouy half-flippantly calls the "environmental solutions capital" of Canada. It is convinced that if Bennett gets the ministry's OK, the Adams Mine project will also be revived - the inert sand and gravelly soil that come out at the end of the incineration process still contain some contaminants, and will have to be dumped somewhere.

Much of the opposition to the plan is coming from local farmers. John Vanthof, president of the Temiskaming Federation of Agriculture, an organization representing 400 farmers in the region, explains that their two biggest concerns are public perception and biomagnification - the process of a pollutant becoming more concentrated as it passes through the food chain, with the contamination not becoming evident until, possibly, 20 years down the road. The closest farm to the Bennett site is 10 km, but even farmers as far as 70 km south of town worry that their $100-million-a-year beef, dairy and wheat business will dry up if there is even a hint of PCBs around their properties. To this end, 100 farmers have donated the cash equivalent of one cow - about $800 - to raise money for the fight. "We're an industry, too," says Vanthof, who runs a dairy and cash-crop farm. "If even a little bit of PCBs comes out of that plant, that could end up in my milk. And if I can't sell my milk, then my farm is worthless."

David Ramsay, the area's MLA and Liberal opposition critic for labour and natural resources, has joined forces with the farmers and other concerned residents who are stockpiling mountains of information. Activists update Web sites daily with tidbits taken from documents acquired through Freedom of Information requests that reflect badly on other Bennett projects, especially a similar soil treatment facility in St. Ambroise, Que. "It's bizarre and crazy," says Angus. "It's a constant war."

Fears of a negative economic impact on the area are justified. In June, dairy giant Parmalat Canada wrote to Ramsay saying that because "perception can be as damaging as reality on issues of food safety," it couldn't promise to continue buying the region's milk if Bennett's facility moves into town. The agriculture federation received letters from three other important buyers - CM Seeds, Dover Flour and Halton Flour Milling Inc. A review of Bennett's project commissioned by the federation concluded in July that it "poses an unacceptable risk." Bennett, in turn, filed a lawsuit against the report's author, environmental specialist Beak Management Consulting of Brampton, Ont., claiming it damaged the company's reputation and stock value.

To date, the permit process has taken over three years for Bennett and cost more than $3 million. This latest setback, which requires more number crunching and further studies, will add to that. But Ponn explains there is no shortage of soil that needs cleaning, and therefore it is worth the effort. "There is enough material in Ontario alone to warrant several of these plants," he says. "But you can't do cleanup unless you have the infrastructure." Ponn also points out that while the application is for importing soil from all three NAFTA countries, only Canada and the U.S. are currently willing to pay to clean up their soil. And the only soil contaminated with PCBs that Bennett plans on treating would be from Canada. This is, Ponn acknowledges, cold comfort to the farmers. "These people are just opposed to development, period," says Ponn. "They want to keep their corner of the north just the way they like it."

The medical community has waded into the fray. Dr. Riina Bray of Toronto, chair of the Environmental Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, wrote to the ministry, concerned with the possible medical side effects the plant could cause and asking that officials reject the Bennett plan. On its Web site, the company posted a response to Bray from Dr. Edward M. Gardiner, a family practitioner in the Ottawa area who supports the project, admonishing her for the "knee-jerk letter" on official Ontario College of Family Physicians letterhead.

Enouy trusts the process. "The environment ministry is not going to let a company come in and poison people's milk," he rages. "It doesn't make any sense." He describes the conflict as a mining-versus-agriculture state of mind and adds that 80 per cent of his town is behind Bennett, if the plant is safe. An informal poll of downtown businesses and local residents supports this. "We're sending out kids to jobs in Toronto," says store owner Barrette. "There is worse stuff than that in Toronto. Don't tell me this little plant, so many miles out of town, is going to make a difference. I say go for it." Thomas Barr, a mild-mannered fellow sitting in his empty barber shop, adds: "It's better than no jobs. If the plant is safe, then I'm for it."

And while 35 to 38 jobs might not seem worth the fight, Enouy is determined to keep his town alive. If the Bennett proposal is killed, the dream of an "environmental solutions" mecca fizzles. What happens then? "We go on with our lives," says Enouy, starting his van back up again. "We don't look like the healthiest community in the world but I'll tell you what, we're not the poorest either. Don't anybody need to feel sorry for us, there's nobody that needs to say that Kirkland Lake is so hard up it'll take anything. That's the most useless crap I've ever heard in my life."

Maclean's November 18, 2002