Ottawa

Parmalat ammonia leak investigated by environment ministry

A leak of ammonia at the Parmalat cheese factory in Winchester, Ont. — which forced a woman out of her home temporarily last week — has been referred to the Ministry of Environment's investigations and enforcement branch to determine if charges will be laid.
The Parmalat cheese factory in Winchester, Ont., says the company took the "minor accidental discharge of ammonia" very seriously. (CBC News)

A leak of ammonia at the Parmalat cheese factory in Winchester, Ont. — which forced a woman out of her home temporarily last week — has been referred to the Ministry of Environment's investigations and enforcement branch to determine if charges are required.

"We have rules that companies must operate in a way that is environmentally responsible and not cause adverse effects," said Courtney Redmond, a senior environmental officer for the ministry based in Cornwall, Ont., on Tuesday.

"As part of our response, we will be reviewing these rules to determine if they were broken and if charges, in fact, are warranted."

A woman who lives with her son one block away from the factory woke up to the pungent smell of ammonia on Jan. 7. She wasn't sure what she was smelling or where the odour could be coming from, so she contacted a friend to come over.

'You couldn't breathe it'

Polly Hill, a home inspector, says she was "gobsmacked" by the burning smell of ammonia when she walked into her friend's house. (CBC)
That friend, a certified home inspector named Polly Hill, said she was shocked by the smell.

"You couldn't breathe it. It burned," Hill told CBC News last week. "You could feel it burning into your lungs and your bronchi and your eyes and your nose, the membranes. It was burning.

"I was gobsmacked. I couldn't believe it … In all honesty I had to tell her, I hadn't come across anything like this before. … I told her she had to call somebody immediately."

The homeowner does not want to be identified publicly.

The smell had been coming from the storm sewer through a faulty pipe in the woman's home.

Parmalat says isolated leak involved less than 1 litre of ammonia

A woman and her son living at this house in Winchester, Ont., south of Ottawa, were temporarily forced out of their home last week by the burning smell of an ammonia leak. (CBC)
​Parmalat told the Ontario Ministry of the Environment the leak was an "isolated event" that involved less than a litre of ammonia and caused no environmental impacts after leaking into the town's storm sewer system, Redmond said.

"The company reported that the drain at the plant had been plugged and that the release had been stopped," Redmond added. "Ministry staff will certainly be meeting with the company to review its drainage system and to ensure that preventative and remedial measures are taken to ensure that something like this does not happen again."

But the homeowner told CBC News she had similar smells inside her home for two weeks last winter. She said it caused headaches and bloody noses, but she never reported it.

Redmond said the ministry is taking Parmalat at its word, and if an investigation is launched, the ministry will review all evidence.

"Currently we have no reason to believe that companies or individuals would provide false information to the ministry, so as I mentioned this incident has been referred for further investigation, and if, in fact, an investigation is launched, our investigators will review all the evidence to determine if charges are warranted," Redmond said.

A meeting between Parmalat and the ministry about the factory's drainage system is scheduled for next week.

The executive director of the Ottawa Riverkeeper, Meredith Brown, said storm sewers are connected directly to natural water systems and rivers, and ammonia can be "very toxic in the aquatic environment."

Brown also said ammonia is less toxic in cold winter waters.

"If this was the middle of summer we don't know what [impact] we would have seen," Brown said, adding that it's up to companies themselves to report leaks.

"We've kind of built this system of self regulation right now, and our government agencies … really rely on watchdogs, on observations from the public, on people calling them … so we're relying on businesses, industries, municipalities to be self-regulated and to understand the impacts of what they're doing and to really conform to the regulations that we have in place," she said.

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