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Something smells finish-y in Alderwood

CYNTHIA REASON | Oct 09, 2009

Concerned parents launch Good Neighbour campaign to rid community of toxic odours

When the Alderwood air is heavy, and the wind blows just so, a "sickly sweet" odour has been wafting into nearby backyards and playgrounds - forcing a group of concerned parents to take action, lest their children be forced to remain indoors for "fresh air."

"It smells like paint - that toxic, gross, gets-in-your-mouth kind of smell," said Lorraine Tooth, one of a core group of about 10 mothers who, with help from the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), have led the charge to identify the source of and try to remediate the offending odour in a Good Neighbour campaign.

Following their noses towards the varnish-like smell, the group traced the odour back to Fleetwood Fine Furniture. The 35-year-old business employs close to 200 local residents, and has been located at 75 Brown's Line for about 20 years, manufacturing furniture for the hospitality industry - and catering to the custom-made requests from such five-star clients as New York's Waldorf Astoria and the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

But despite President Reg Tiessen's billing of the company as a "Canadian success story," local residents fed up with the smell emanating from Fleetwood are less than impressed.

Sandra Van, whose two young children attend Sir Adam Beck Junior School less than a kilometre from Fleetwood, said she's been noticing the odour since she started dropping her kids off at school in 2004.

Concerned about what kind of toxins her kids were inhaling at recess, Van said she went through all the traditional political mechanisms to try to get the issue dealt with in the past, calling on both local politicians and the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to help the community with the smell. But the response she got from all sides was the same - the level of Fleetwood's emissions is in full compliance with ministry standards.

Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor Mark Grimes, who lives in the area himself, said that while he has never noticed the smell, he recently went to the Fleetwood plant to investigate after receiving a complaint.

"I was totally satisfied with the tour and I'm satisfied that (Fleetwood) is trying to be a good neighbour," he said, noting again that Fleetwood is in compliance with ministry standards. "The last thing I want to do is drive good business of out this community. If they weren't being a good neighbour, I'd go after them, but as the local councillor, I'm satisfied that they're acting in good faith."

According to Tiessen, Fleetwood's emissions not only fall within, but far below that which is allowed for by the MOE - running at just 25 per cent of allowable levels.

While Stephanie Wheeler, an officer with the Toronto District Office of the MOE, couldn't confirm those numbers, she said the ministry is working with Fleetwood voluntarily to resolve the odour issue. They last inspected the site in 2006.

"As part of our on-going work with the company, we will be assessing the overall emissions from the facility to confirm (their emission levels)," she wrote in an email response to a Guardian inquiry. "We are continuing to work with the company to ensure the emissions from the facility comply with ministry standards, which are protective of human health and the environment."

Wheeler confirmed that Fleetwood operates under a Certificate of Approval from the MOE, which requires that companies supply to the MOE all supporting information assessing their facility's emissions, including emission summaries and dispersion reports. Such documentation, Wheeler said, is there to ensure the emissions from each company comply with ministry standards.

That certification, no matter how comforting to local residents on one level, also gives them little political recourse against the offensive odour and emissions - which is where TEA stepped in.

In April, though a 'serendipitous' coincidence, Van and her fellow concerned neighbours banded together with TEA, who were canvassing the area looking for a Good Neighbour campaign cause toward which to funnel recent funding from the Trillium Foundation.

The Good Neighbour campaign seeks to bypass time and resource-consuming political and legal routes by getting local companies to sit down and negotiate directly with residents concerned about the impact emissions have on the health of the community, explained Lina Cino, a toxics campaigner with TEA.

"The campaign is not about NIMBYism - it's actually YIMBYism. Yes, we want this furniture manufacturer in our backyard, and we will support them 100 per cent as they become more environmentally responsible in their manufacturing practices," she said. "We do not want to close the company down."

Over the summer, the campaign saw volunteers knocking on doors and handing out flyers to raise awareness of the issue, and a letter writing campaign had Fleetwood inundated with more than 300 letters of complaint.

The recent blitz of complaints has left Tiessen scratching his head.

"We've been here on Brown's Line for about 20 years, and we've had very few complaints - maybe one or two a year," he said, noting that once the Good Neighbour campaign kicked off in April his offices received a rash of letters. "In the past, we have changed our formulations. In fact, we're constantly looking for better ways (in our finishing process), but it surprises us that neighbours can smell that."

In the process of attaining their MOE Certificate of Approval, Fleetwood completed dispersion models which utilize computers to simulate any odour effect that the company's processes might have on the surrounding neighbourhood. That modelling indicated there should be only a minimal impact on neighbours and the environment, Tiessen said.

Still, Tiessen took time to sit down with representatives from the Good Neighbour campaign twice over the summer - first on May 19, then again on June 23 - and said he's willing to talk with them again, but isn't sure what more he can do.

"I'd be happy to sit down with them again - I've never refused a meeting - but it's important to know what the objective is," he said. "If the issue is about the emissions, there's not a lot more we can do. As it is, we are approved by the Ministry and we're so far below their standards that I'm not sure we can go much lower."

Even while acknowledging that Fleetwood is operating within their rights and have not violated any environmental laws or regulations, Good Neighbour campaigners say they want the company to live up to a higher standard of practice.

"The community wants them to adopt a 'community standard' - to be a green leader and reduce their use of chemical solvents and thus reduce the potential unhealthy outcomes and odours from the neighbourhood," Cino said, noting the campaign will continue until the community sees results.

As posted: http://www.insidetoronto.com/news/local/article/155258--something-smells-finish-y-in-alderwood

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