Timiskaming dairy farmers are prepared to go to court, if necessary, to stop the construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in Kirkland Lake and protect their livelihood.
Feeling marginalized and frustrated by the province’s environmental assessment process, farmers are formally opposing Bennett Environmental Inc.’s proposed plant and are demanding the minister of Environment reject the Oakville company’s application to establish a facility capable of processing 200,000 tonnes annually of contaminated soil containing PCBs and other chemicals.
“I don’t want to fight with anybody, but I’ll fight like hell to protect our industry,” says John Vanthof, president of the Temiskaming Federation of Agriculture, and an Englehart dairy farmer for 20 years.
At risk, they say, is the future of the region’s milk, cash crop and livestock industry.
The temperature of the heated region-wide debate rose a few notches in late June when milk processing giant Parmalat released a letter stating it could not guarantee it would continue to buy milk from Timiskaming District dairy producers unless Bennett Environmental gives scientific assurances there will no impact by their incinerator on agriculture in the area.
Farmers and Parmalat express concern that escaping inadvertent stack emissions containing dioxins and furans from the incinerator could conceivably wind up in livestock feed and eventually work their way up the food chain, and over time through to milk and meat products.
Agriculture in south Timiskaming is the region’s major industry, representing an estimated $100 million annually in sales, according to the federation.
Of the area’s 350 commercial farms, 80 are dairy, while the remainder are beef and cash crops, such as wheat and canola.
John Bennett, president and CEO of Bennett Environmental, accuses incinerator opponents of building hysteria against the project by spreading “malicious rumours” to wheat and dairy farmers.
“There’s no chance we could ever cause a problem in north Timiskaming,” says Bennett, adding the environmental assessment process and field data they plan to supply from their St. Ambroise, Que. incinerator will show “no measurable effects” from any kind of contaminants.
“I would certainly like (that information) to be reviewed because we have an impeccable record, totally impeccable.
“The sources of what they’re worried about, like dioxins, I mean a cigarette will put out more than we will in Timiskaming.
“If any other industry was subject to the same scrutiny we were, nothing would ever be able to operate, not even a wood stove.”
Bennett says any extension to the public commenting period should be viewed as stall tactics by opponents.
“We’ve done everything asked of us by the ministry and every concerned citizen, and that’s why it’s taken three years and $3 million.
“I don’t know what else you would like us to study.”
The federation is in the midst of a fundraising campaign having hired environmental consultants Beak International of Brampton to review Bennett’s formal proposal, which is now in the hands of the provincial Environment Ministry.
They are also raising money for a legal war chest should the Bennett plant be given ministry approval without the benefit of extensive and wide-ranging public hearings.
They were further seeking an extension of the Aug. 9 deadline for public comment, set by the Ministry of Environment.
Vanthof harbours concerns that an embargo of Timiskaming milk may spread to other agricultural products.
In a letter sent in June to Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP David Ramsay, Parmalat’s senior vice-president of operations, Robert Poirier stated that consumer and customer pressure might force them to refuse Timiskaming milk.
“You are right,” Poirier wrote in a reply letter to Ramsay, “in saying that perception can be as damaging as reality on issues of food safety.”
Ramsay wrote Parmalat in April wanting assurances that if the incinerator went ahead they would continue to buy milk from area farmers.
Ramsay, who has come out strong against the incinerator proposal, and what he considers a narrowly scoped assessment process, asked that stack-emission data from Bennett’s hazardous waste plant in St. Ambroise, Que. be included in the environmental review of the Kirkland Lake proposal.
His request was rejected by the Environment Ministry.