WINCHESTER – It was Parmalat’s turn Thurs., July 5 to clear the air: both literally and metaphorically.

During a first of its kind town hall meeting, citizens of Winchester and area were given time with senior staff members from the plant, which has made its home in the core of the village since the 1930s when the Ault family’s small cheese house operation moved from Cass Bridge.

Ault Foods continued until 1997 when Parmalat purchased the site, and in 2011 the multinational Lactalis Group took charge.

Production at the plant continues to consist of some of the best cheeses in Canada, butter, and other ingredients.

More than 250 people are employed there, which the company estimates some 65 per cent of those live within 30 kilometres of the site.

Bruce Shurtleff (left), plant manager at Winchester’s Parmalat facility, at Thurs., July 5’s town hall meeting. Also pictured are Martin Santerre, Parmalat Canada’s vice-president of cheese manufacturing, and Josee Monast, manufacturing manager. Press Photo – Uhrig

To date, Winchester’s cheese plant is the largest in Canada.

“We’ve been a part of this community for a longtime, and Parmalat takes great pride in that heritage,” plant manager Bruce Shurtleff said.

Despite the heritage in the village, the sprawling operation is not without complaints from its neighbours, and others throughout Winchester.

In terms of complaints, Shurtleff worked to address those effectively, laying out each, including truck traffic, dust and noise, odours, and other miscellaneous concerns.

The number of trucks entering and exiting the plant has increased significantly since Parmalat’s ultrafiltration system was brought online last year, which allows the plant to bring in milk and filter onsite now. Estimates show 100 trucks coming and going in a 24-hour period.

Plans are in place to address these issues, including dust sweeping with water on the asphalt yard, and a lime-based dust control solution. Meanwhile, truck drivers have been instructed to exit using the rear access route, which ultimately transfer onto Liscumb Road, between 6 pm and 6 am. This measure has been in place since late June, but Shurtleff acknowledged there have been “compliance issues” with some of the long-haulers.

As well, daytime trucks now have inbound priority, meaning no more reversing onto Gladstone Street, and drivers have been advised to only back-up within the plant’s yard. Parmalat has also replaced the audible alarms used when reversing with blue strobe lights on all its shunt trucks.

While no timelines were shared for when these measures would be implemented, Shurtleff also noted that Parmalat would be installing cameras to regulate truck traffic, paving the remaining portion of its yard, relocate the truck route to the north of the facility, and build a noise barrier along the plant’s western boundary.

The outcome, he added, would be elimination of trucks on Gladstone, and within Winchester’s core, and a significant reduction of noise and dust.

“We are working on these commitments,” Shurtleff said.

Addressing the odour from Parmalat’s wastewater site, which has been particularly bad this summer, is also being prioritized.

The increased volume of effluent sent to the plant has only exacerbated the problem. Aeration and stored water cells, along with organic waste from cheese, butter, and the powder process are the specific causes, according to Shurtleff.

An equalization tank installed last year is now mixing the effluent before treatment, which is being done with lime, a calcium-based antioxidant and probiotic bacteria.

“This is short-term with limited effectiveness,” Shurtleff said.

The proposal receiving the most public reaction was the implementation of a dissolved air floatation system. This process includes trapping the discharged effluent into a bag apparatus, which will hold the sludge and should reduce the smell in the region.

“What we need to do is minimize the amount of liquid waste in the facility, and this process looks very encouraging,” Shurtleff said.

Traditionally, the sludge was collected and treated, and ultimately spread onto area fields ahead of planting season. The window of time in which to do that continues to get shorter, Shurtleff conceded, which leaves Parmalat holding onto the sludge.

“Then it just sits there like a swamp, and it’s not good,” he said. “At that point we just get into mitigation, so we’ve found an alternative solution.”

Each bag is roughly 40 yards in length, and sits at 12 feet high. The sludge held inside remains for nine months before opening, which should eliminate the odour. Puncture holes in the bag allow for the water to be removed, and it is then transferred to the plant’s lagoon for testing, and ultimately into the nearby Annable Drain if passable.

For more reaction from the meeting, see the video posted below and the accompanying stories here.