Jonathan Swift said coffee makes us severe and grave and philosophical. An Annex environmentalist says the roasting of coffee beans by her next-door neighbour is making her family sick - leading to a bitter battle with a prominent eco-research foundation.
Joan Doiron, a former school trustee who years ago was named by the paper you're reading as one of the city's top activists, has accused her Brunswick Avenue neighbour Energy Probe and its Green Beanery of roasting coffee beans on site. This, she says, has made their house unlivable.
Doiron says her husband, Henri, and daughter Nathalie, who both suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), experience burning eyes and shortness of breath. They have vacated their home and are staying at the Sheraton Hotel for $175 a night.
The U.S. enviro protection agency says coffee roasting emits formaldehyde, acrolein and benzofuran, among other goodies. But Energy Probe executive director Larry Solomon calls accusations that the Beanery is roasting on site nothing but hot air, the result of "fertile imaginations."
When Energy Probe moved into the Annex in 1988, the Doirons supported its application at a committee of adjustment hearing. The Green Beanery began operating in 2004, and the Doirons say roasting began last May. They brought their concerns to former Trinity-Spadina councillor Olivia Chow, who ordered municipal licensing and standards, the board of health and the building department to investigate.
While the building department has yet to check for zoning violations, MLS did issue a notice of violation to the Green Beanery for engaging in retail sales in a residential neighbourhood (online retailer Green Beanery offers order pickup), but found no evidence of a commercial roasting operation.
This finding has only fuelled the word wars. Solomon, who also writes for the National Post, ripped Chow in a column in December for using city resources "to appease the imaginings of her chum, a long-time activist and former campaign worker." (In response, Helen Kennedy, former constituency assistant to the newly elected MP, says Chow takes enviro concerns seriously, and that it was "our job" to investigate.)
Solomon also weighed in in a column last June entitled The Case Of The Phantom Coffee Roasters, writing that "no roasting has been going on in the middle of the night not in the last week, when the Doirons made their most fevered objections; not ever."
But there has been roasting. In fact, I was assured this was why I had to wait for 4 pounds' worth of grind I'd ordered. It boils down to a matter of volume. Solomon says small orders are processed on site using home roasters, while larger orders are outsourced.
Doiron says roasting of any quantity of beans is troublesome because of its residual effects. She says toxins settle and seep into the house, a theory Solomon says is ridiculous. "There's no science to support that."
Though the Doirons have been unable to find neighbours who share their concerns, they says that's because others aren't directly affected by the fumes. Nathalie Doiron, a social work doctoral student writing a thesis on MCS, says she believes those not afflicted with MCS - like her mother - may still be feeling the effects.
I dropped by the Doiron household January 21. I was shocked to feel light-headed and nauseated, with burning eyes, after only 30 minutes. But knowing what to expect can lead to psychosomatic symptoms, and for this reason I didn't tell the Doirons.
Says Nathalie Doiron, "This basically [pits] their right to make money [against] our right to have a place to live. MCS sufferers need safe housing.'
Joan Doiron adds, "Can you imagine an environmental group saying the people next door are too sensitive?"
While there's no disputing the value of Energy Probe's work, the makeup of its board of directors is interesting. Years ago it boasted Jane Jacobs and David Suzuki; now it's populated by the likes of environmental naysayer and Globe and Mail scribe Margaret Wente, who in the middle of last year's record-setting gas price plateau wrote that she'd give up her SUV the day "someone wrests the car keys from my cold, dead fingers." For the record, Solomon says, "I think she's joking when she writes that."
Solomon says he's not insensitive to the Doirons, but they're blaming the wrong people. "When have most of their complaints come? Late at night and weekend nights. Well, that happens to be when most people are burning wood in their fireplaces."
(The Doirons say their symptoms from coffee roasting are very different from reactions to wood burning.)
The Toronto Environmental Alliance's Catrina Miller says the fact that Henri and Nathalie have MCS, which can be triggered by all kinds of chemicals, makes it very hard to pin the blame on coffee roasting. "It's not clear cut. It's very hard to suggest a cause and effect here, because MCS sufferers are so susceptible, especially when they live in the city."
At municipal licensing and standards, Elizabeth Glibbery refuses to comment on specific cases. As for the city's notice of violation, Solomon says, "Our provincial assessment considers us a commercial property. We have paid commercial property taxes since 1988."
At the Ministry of the Environment, officer Jennyn Ewert says, "Alleged adverse impacts to neighbouring residences as a result of roasting activities carried out by Green Beanery are not adequately supported by inspection observations made to date by attending officers.' Still, she says, the operation is being further assessed. Staff, she says, will continue to respond on a priority basis to reported incidents.
TEA's Miller says the Doirons can file an appeal with the ministry for special consideration based on their disability. In the meantime, they are apartment-hunting and considering selling their house. Solomon has expressed an interest. I doubt they'll discuss this over coffee.