WINCHESTER — The owner of Canada’s largest cheese factory has been convicted of releasing foul odours into the surrounding community on three occasions between 2017 and 2019, as Parmalat Canada Inc. ramped up flow-through at the site in downtown Winchester.
And those stinking incidents will cost the corporation (now known as Lactalis Canada Inc.) $747,500 in penalties, as imposed by a Cornwall court. The cheesemaker pleaded guilty Aug. 25 and was given 30 days to pay. In a Sept. 10 bulletin, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks reports that the penalty comprises a $510,000 fine, a “short-term probation order” payout of $110,000 to the Beaty Water Research Centre at Queen’s University, plus $127,500 in victim surcharges.
The ministry says it launched an investigation after “numerous complaints” of the smell emanating from the North Dundas Township plant after the deployment of a new milk micro-filtration system boosted wastewater flows beyond the approved operating limits of an on-site treatment system.
Environmental Protection Act charges were laid in 2019 related to discharging odours into the natural environment that caused an adverse effect and for failing to comply with conditions of a ministry approval.
The ministry says the situation compelled area residents to stay indoors with windows closed, woke them from their sleep, and even caused some to seek accommodation elsewhere. “Area residents reported multiple impacts, including the inability to enjoy their property, health impacts, and financial expenses,” it adds.
In 2017, the company significantly increased processing capacity at the plant with a celebrated $15-million expansion (assisted by a $1.3-million provincial grant) to accommodate an additional 200-million litres of Ontario and Quebec milk after domestic supply-management overseers cut the price of excess skim milk to shut out cheap American imports (a move that angered then-U.S. president Donald Trump.). At the time, surplus skim milk produced in Ontario and Quebec was sometimes being dumped as waste, a source of some embarrassment to the domestic dairy industry.
Increased volumes began arriving in Winchester to sop up that surplus, before a related $17.39-million upgrade to the factory’s sewage plant was completed in 2020. The plant is also known to process some American milk into cheese exclusively for return to the U.S. market, under the import-for-export program.
Local discontent came to a head in July 2018 when Parmalat hosted a testy public meeting that filled the Winchester arena hall with unhappy residents. The plant manager of the day assured the crowd of impending waste-handling improvements to eliminate the stink. Those measures included replacing the company’s traditional open-air lagoons with sophisticated de-watering technology and ending the smelly practice of drawing out sludge from the lagoons — just outside Winchester — as fertilizer.
The factory has been a Winchester fixture for generations, as has the occasional unpleasant whiff from the process.
In a statement released to Farmers Forum, Lactalis Canada acknowledges pleading guilty “and accepts the associated fine including the payment to Queen’s University that will benefit the Beaty Water Research Centre.” The company points to its completed wastewater treatment modernization project as part of its “continued commitment” to odour mitigation.
“As a long-standing member of Winchester community, Lactalis Canada is proud of its deep ties to the region and places great importance on having a positive impact on the community and the safety and wellbeing of its members,” it concludes.
Lactalis Canada Corporate Communication Director Roopa Shah also explained in an email that contributing to the Beaty Water Research Centre satisfied the “rehabilitation” element of the penalty “by contributing to the pool of qualified professionals in Eastern Ontario with expertise in water quality issues, and was accepted by the Court on this basis.”
The Centre was likewise selected because of its relative proximity to Winchester and because the offending odour stemmed from a water treatment issue, according to Shah.
Winchester resident Ami Johnson, who lives one block away from the plant, said the company did the right thing by pleading guilty and accepting the penalties. It demonstrated “good faith to the community and makes them the good neighour they want to be,” Johnson said.
She recalled that the smell became “quite bad in the summer” after the plant expansion. “You couldn’t sit outside or have your windows open, which had not been the case prior to the expansion.”
But the company’s upgrades to tackle the problem have since satisfied her as well. “Now that they are up and running, I hardly ever notice any odour.”