WINCHESTER – When the townspeople gathered at the Joel Steele Community Centre Thurs., July 5 for the town hall meeting with Parmalat, one guest was notably absent – a representative from the provincial ministry of environment, conservation and parks (MOECC).

Many people were hoping to not only get answers from the management of Parmalat, but also from the ministry as to what can be done by the provincial government’s branch, which oversees environmental concerns. Their absence was curious and drew a suspicious sigh from more than a few residents.

The responsibility of the ministry of environment, according to their official website, is “leading to healthier communities and economic prosperity through the protection of Ontario’s air, land and water.”

It is also the MOECC that has been working closely with Parmalat to address the odour and lagoon issues that have persisted. It was at the MOECC’s insistence that Parmalat called the town hall meeting to inform residents of the progress and efforts being made to address the issues in an effort to open the lines of communication and create greater transparency.

So, the question remains why were they absent?

According to several residents who were in contact with the MOECC, two senior officials from the Cornwall office had every expectation of attending but were given direction at the last minute by upper management that they were not permitted to attend.

The Winchester Press attempted to get clarification as to the reasons why the representatives were told to stay away, but attempts to contact MOECC spokesperson Gary Wheeler were unsuccessful.

In a conversation with Wheeler Fri., June 29 it was confirmed that he would in fact be in attendance.

“It would probably be me. I’m the guy. Unless I’m sick or away,” he said.

Questions submitted to Wheeler via telephone during that conversation were responded to in an email received by the Press Wed., July 4 as outlined below.

Q: What is the process for residents to raise concerns about odours and spills from the facility?
We encourage residents to report observations and concerns to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks by calling the ministry’s Cornwall Area Office directly at 1-800-860-2760 or the public pollution reporting hotline at 1-866-MOE-TIPS (1-866-663-8477).  Residents can also report a spill to the ministry’s Spills Action Centre 24/7 at 1-800-268-6060.

Q: If concerns are raised, will / have ministry staff visit(ed) the facility to follow-up?
Staff with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks carefully review and consider all concerns raised to determine the most effective response. The ministry has issued provincial officer’s orders to Parmalat to address odours, which impact residents near the facility. The company is currently modifying onsite equipment and implementing operational changes to reduce the potential for odours at the site. We encourage residents to continue reporting any odour concerns to the ministry while these changes are underway.

Q: Are facilities (in this case Parmalat) required to self-report odour issues and spills?
Ontario’s environmental regulations require companies to report spills to the natural environment. These are mandatory requirements under the Ontario Environmental Protection Act.

Q: What kind of environmental penalties could Parmalat face if staff find there are issues at the facility?
The ministry works to ensure that companies comply with all environmental requirements.  Where ministry staff identify non-compliance and voluntary abatement measures do not improve environmental deficiencies, we may order a company to implement corrective measures, issue an offence notice and/or lay formal charges. Fines under the Environmental Protection Act and Ontario Water Resources Act are dependent on the offence and can range from several hundred to several million dollars.

Q: Is the local South Nation Conservation Authority testing water from a nearby drain? If not the conservation authority, what agency is testing the water?
The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has not been notified by the South Nation Conservation Authority about water sampling initiatives they are leading near the Parmalat facility. Please contact the authority directly for more details.

Q: Local residents report that unmarked trucks are leaving the area / facility carrying smelly substances. Can the ministry comment on this?
To date, ministry staff have not received any reports about suspicious vehicle activities. The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks is committed to following up on all complaints and concerns reported by residents in the community surrounding Parmalat.