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  Court could settle sawmill seesaw

By Tom VanDusen - AgriNews Staff Writer

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  • Upper Ottawa Valley sawmill operators are hoping upcoming provincial court appearances by two of their own will help clear the air in an ongoing confrontation with MOE over their storage piles of wood chips, sawdust and bark.

    Not content to standby, the Renfrew County Small Sawmill Association is investigating hiring a lawyer to challenge the MOE in Ontario Superior Court, said association secretary Dr. Willard Fogal. The objective will be to prove that sawmill residues are a marketable product, rather than unwanted waste.

    The drawback, said Fogal who's based in Chalk River, is the prohibitive cost of such an action for an association with limited funds. The final decision will be made shortly, he said.

    And letters were to be sent Jan. 28 to Premier Dalton McGuinty and members of cabinet calling for withdrawal of outstanding charges against the two operators in question, along with reimbursement of their costs.

    In addition, the letters demand compensation for four small family sawmills which have folded under the strain, removal of work orders from several other mills, and revision of Section 14-1 of the Environmental Protection Act under which MOE has been acting.

    The letters represent a joint campaign by the sawmill association, along with Renfrew and Lanark landowners' associations.

    Two county sawmill operators, Gulick Forest Products and Earl Sarr Forest Products, have already made second appearances in Pembroke provincial court charged with failing to carry out work orders imposed by the ministry. The cases have been bumped into March.

    Charges were laid when the operators didn't complete expensive testing and file management plans for MOE enforcers who've decided that wood chips, sawdust, bark and other residues could be toxic hazards.

    A retired Petawawa National Forest Institute research scientist who now wholesales sawmill residues, Fogal finds it hard to keep the chuckle out of his voice when discussing the "hazard" involved. Leachates from residue piles are natural products returning to the surrounding environment; in some cases, they have beneficial side-effects such as killing certain bacteria, the scientist said.

    "The MOE needs to back off a bit," said the forestry expert who sells tractor-trailer loads of untreated residues for further processing into mulch and other landscaping products, many of which end up in children's playgrounds.

    The ministry is lowering the boom on more than 40 sawmills in Renfrew and Lanark counties in a campaign which critics such as Fogal claim offers no scientific evidence that natural sawmill byproduct - which has been deposited throughout the area for well over a century - causes environmental problems.

    In enforcing a section of the EPA, the ministry is requiring extensive consulting and engineering reports leading to certification and permits for storage locations. Failure to comply can bring fines ranging from $20,000 a day for individuals, to $100,000 a day for corporations.

    Tim Schwan, a director of the sawmill association, claims there are no established testing protocols, and no guidelines as to what might be harmful or how much stored material is too much. The ministry, Schwan said, wants operators to pay to drill wells upstream and downstream from residue piles to test for leachates; meanwhile, he said, the association has learned that tests conducted elsewhere have shown no difference in water quality.

    "We're willing to work with MOE but not under direct threat to our livelihood," he said, adding that steady "hounding and harassing" by the ministry has affected his bottom line.

    Grant Gulick said his company has never in 75 years of business been charged with creating an environmental hazard. He explained the family simply can't afford to spend up to $100,000 to carry out an MOE order for tests and plans.

    The same material the ministry is questioning is processed without restrictions into mulch to lay on city flower beds and trails, Gulick observed, adding the pressure is threatening to drive the family out of business which would eliminate several jobs in part of Renfrew County.

    MOE Toronto-based spokesman John Steele said other jurisdictions are now requiring similar procedures and certification. The ministry, he said, is not just concerned with piles of sawmill leavings, but also with foreign matter which sometimes finds its way into them such as oil and pesticides.

    But Fogal, who purchases such piles from the mills, said he rarely sees any foreign matter among the residues: "Most piles are clean and when you dig down, the composition hasn't changed in 50 years."

    Local Conservative MPP John Yakabuski, who can't believe that collecting fresh sawdust in a pile has become a crime, said any testing should be done at MOE expense.

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