‘You can’t eat energy’: Fighting a plan to build a peaker plant in the Holland Marsh

Written by Avia Eek, Holland Marsh farmer

Consider this: 56% of Canada’s prime agricultural farmland is in Ontario. The Holland Marsh is one of three micro-climates in the province; the other two being in the Niagara Region. Organic-based soil pockets like that of the Holland Marsh do not occur everywhere, and should be treasured and protected. The population is increasing and we will require more food production, not less.

Yet a government plan to build a gas-fired power plant in the Holland Marsh threatens all of that.

My name is Avia Eek. My husband, Bill, and I farm in the Holland Marsh. My husband, and many of the farmers in the Holland Marsh are descendants of the first pioneers who broke this land in 1934. Although, it should be noted the first industry here was the harvesting of the marsh grass for mattresses. This business took place from 1880 to approx. 1915, when it peaked.

The soil in the Holland Marsh is organic based, the result of thousands of years of vegetation decay. The Holland Marsh contains huge pockets of peat/muck soils — a tremendous medium for growing the more than 40 crops that are produced here. The soil is valuable because it holds moisture and nutrients so the plants can grow. This type of soil does not occur everywhere. In fact, a recent economic impact study shows the Holland Marsh, through the business of farming and related activities, contributes more than $500 million to the province of Ontario annually!

The farmers of the Holland Marsh are community-minded people, and are ready, able and willing to help those in need whenever the need arises. We regularly provide fresh vegetables, together with our time, to our local food banks. We give our time and resources to family crisis shelters, coach sports’ teams, and simply help one another when given the opportunity.

Last year, we found out that a property in the province’s “Salad Bowl”, diagonal to an elementary school, metres from a waterway farmers use for irrigation, which feeds into Lake Simcoe and is also located in a flood plain, was to become the home of a 393 Megawatt, simple cycle, natural gas-fired peaker plant. The name “peaker” refers to the fact that this facility will provide power at “peak” times i.e. summer, when it’s hot, and winter, when it’s cold.

This land is also protected countryside and in the greenbelt, a provincially mandated agricultural preserve. There are 17 pieces of legislation intended to protect the Holland Marsh. Yet, this facility is designed to run at just 36% efficiency. The emissions from this plant will be the equivalent of three tonnes of greenhouse gas every hour it is running, complete with 18 kilometres of 16-inch, high-pressure, industrial gas pipeline.


This type of facility is a “conflicted use” for this highly productive, sensitive growing area, which has the designation of “Specialty Crop Area”.

It’s my understanding information meetings were held in September or October last year — a very busy time for farmers here, so I’m unsure how many farmers actually even knew the meetings were taking place. I do know that there were five or six proposed sites for this peaker plant. I also know that residents in those particular areas said “NO” to having the facility in their communities.

One of the proposed sites was beside a conservation area in the Bradford area. I understand about 300 people showed up to that meeting, said no, and that was that. Conservation areas are very important and should be protected, but I would think a highly productive, sensitive food growing area would at least be given the same consideration.

A Town Hall meeting was held in February this year, after the site was chosen during harvest 2008. The meeting was held in King City with then Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, George Smitherman, addressing more than 500 farmers and residents. He opened the meeting with an announcement that “NIMBY’s would not be tolerated…. People wanted to flick a switch and know they had electricity….. This peaker plant was going to be built on the chosen site!” So began our fight to continue to be able to grow safe, healthy, local food for the people of Ontario! To date all of our requests for re-consideration have fallen on deaf ears!

I won’t get into all the scientific data regarding the emissions — nitrogen oxide, greenhouse gasses, PM2.5 — that this facility will release from its smoke stacks, or how it will increase respiratory problems for people, since I am not qualified in these areas. But the research is available.

What I do know is that the Holland Marsh is located within a bowl, hence the name “Salad Bowl of Ontario.” While this peaker plant facility is not technically within the Holland Marsh, it is meters from it, and within our bowl. That means emissions have a better chance of being trapped here — that’s just common sense!

The fact that this facility will be running in peak times, when it’s hot and extra power is required, also coincides with the crucial growing period for our crops. If this peaker plant facility is built in this area, it will cause additional challenges, such as air pollution, which will affect crop yields, and undue hardship to our farmers, who are already struggling to compete in a global market.

This website will show you the damage that will occur as a result of the added air pollution http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/01-015.htm .

We also have Highway 400 running through the Marsh and scheduled for expansion. This will only add more air pollution to this sensitive area.

According to the proponent, the emissions from the plant fall within the acceptable parameters for air quality. I question this. I believe the standard data used for testing air quality comes the air shed at Pearson International Airport. I wonder whether the findings would be different and not so “acceptable” if the air shed where this facility is slated to be built was to be tested independently! The soil data that was used was also based on mineral soils, not organic soils. Again, the proper testing should be done to see exactly how the emissions from this peaker plant will affect our organic soil!

Holland Marsh farmers adhere to strict rules and regulations to ensure food safety and a nurturing environment for our crops. Farmers here monitor changes in the soil twice a year. Tissue samples are taken. Water samples from the canal are also taken on a regular basis. Our crop yields are reported annually — we know what we produce, and we know our environment. Our farmers attend workshops and implement environmental farm plans on a regular basis. Many of us are Local Food Plus certified, meaning a third party comes to your farm to assesses your best farm practices.

Over the last several months, while we’ve been fighting the rash decision to build the facility in the Marsh, I keep hearing the same lame argument from those who are in favour of the project or who stand to gain from this short-sighted vision: “We need the energy for northern York Region development.”

I find this statement ironic because there isn’t going to be any development in the marsh. It’s a flood plain. The development this facility will supply energy to is north and east of the Marsh for several kilometers. The Marsh isn’t even on the same grid this plant will be supplying peak energy to!

Yes we do need energy, but we also need adequate food production — you can’t eat energy! This area is designated for food production and should remain protected for food production!

The decision to build a peaker plant in the here, on a flood plain no less, is just irresponsible.

I believe Premier Dalton McGinty, and current Energy Minister Gerry Phillips have an obligation to the people of Ontario to rescind the directive to build this industrial facility in the Holland Marsh. I extend an invitation to them to meet with us and discuss this project before it’s too late. The proponent has already made reference to the fact they will be proceeding to the OMB with this matter.

There is a petition at www.gpo.ca that you can sign, which will be forwarded to the environment minister.

Photo credits: Top — Children of the Greenbelt Map — megawhat.ca


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