Kirkland Lake -- Bennett environmental CEO John Bennett is fond of saying that a single cigarette smoker poses a greater risk to the environment than his plans to burn dioxin- and PCB-contaminated soil in an incinerator near Kirkland Lake.Bennett can afford cheeky rejoinders -- and ignore mounting opposition to his project -- because he knows that the town council and mayor are desperate for any development in the economically depressed region. And the province has pulled enough strings to prevent a full-scale environmental assessment.
But the project being sold as an economic necessity for the region -- which will see contaminated soil trucked from Toronto and throughout the U.S. -- is shaping up to be more bust than boon.
Citing concerns over possible contamination, milk producer Parmalat Canada released a letter recently saying the company "cannot give assurances that we would be willing to continue to purchase milk from the Temiskaming district following the implementation of such a facility."
A Parmalat spokesperson declined to elaborate on the company's position this week.
Parmalat is not alone in its concerns over Bennett's plan. It was joined last week by Halton Flour Mill and Dover Flour, two prominent mills in the region, which both say in letters issued publicly that they would be forced to discontinue purchasing wheat from farmers in the region because of concerns around the Bennett proposal. Some 80 public interest groups from 29 countries have also signed a petition opposing Bennett's PCB import plans.
Temiskaming represents the largest farming district in northern Ontario. Milk and dairy operations account for some $100 million a year in business.
Paul Cotter of Halton Flour says, "My customers aren't going to want to find out that we're buying food from a place that could be a health hazard."
Lately, Bennett has been keeping a low profile. Calls for comment to Bennett himself and another company spokesperson, Danny Ponn, went unanswered.
The company, though, has been trying to reassure local residents that there's nothing to fear, with a glossy eight-page flyer distributed to homes. The "Bennett Report" says, "The region's agriculture industry will continue to grow and prosper with the Bennett plant in place."
Farmers in the region, afraid the province will rubber-stamp the project, held an auction recently to raise money for a court challenge.
Barb Bukowski, a spokesperson for Public Concern Temiskaming, says the letters from Parmalat et al are fuelling opposition to the project.
"This is the largest agricultural district in the north. Our region is totally dependent on farming. People will go to the wall to stop this project."
There are signs, too, that political support for the project is waning.
Area Liberal MPP David Ramsey, whose opposition to the incinerator proposal has been lukewarm, is now raising the alarm.
"Toxic waste imports cannot coexist in a growing agricultural region," he says. "As dairy goes, so could beef, hogs, chicken and crops."
In the U.S., some of the largest food producers in the country have similarly threatened to pull out of contracts with farmers over concerns about proposals for incineration.
This past winter in Albertville, France, dairy herds had to be slaughtered because of dioxin contamination linked to a nearby incinerator.
John Vanthof, head of the Temiskaming Federation of Agriculture, says he's concerned that under the new environmental assessment procedures, Bennett will be the one writing the terms of reference.
"They provide all the evidence. There is no peer review."
Also heightening concerns is Bennett's own spotty environmental record at its existing incinerator in St. Ambroise, Quebec.
"These accident reports completely contradict the claims being made in the Bennett environmental assessment submission," says Terry Graves of Public Concern Temiskaming. "No wonder the Ministry of the Environment doesn't want to hold full hearings. If the MOE dealt with the hard evidence of Bennett's track record, there's no way this incinerator would be licensed in Ontario."
John Steele, a spokesperson with the MOE, says comparing problems at St. Ambroise to the Kirkland operation would be like "comparing apples and oranges." The apples and oranges thing doesn't quite wash, though. Both incinerators are Mark IV Thermal oxidizers. Both are built and operated by Bennett and both burn similar materials.
The main difference is that the Kirkland incinerator would be at least twice the size of the Quebec facility.
"Why is the ministry doing damage control for the proponent?" asks Graves. "It's outrageous."