By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Following word Champion Petfoods would not have its odour issues solved by the end of August as originally planned, Morinville Town Council and administration had an opportunity to tour the plant Tuesday afternoon to find out why. What councillors saw was Champion’s odour problems were not as simple as merely sticking a scrubber onto the existing $500,000 plasma injector system, and that up to $3 million would be spent on the Morinville plant for odour management and airflow alone.
“While we’re still disappointed that progress hasn’t been made on the complete odour mitigation piece, what we’ve seen is much better for the corporation, much better for the community in the long run, and it gives them a fighting chance of meeting some meaningful emission reductions,” said Morinville Mayor Lloyd Bertschi after Tuesday’s plant tour. “Their commitment to this community and this environmental issue that they’re trying to solve is way beyond the odour mitigation. They’re doing that first and foremost and are seven figures dedicated to the odour mitigation, and that’s on top of the $500,000 they’ve already committed to spending.”
That initial investment of a half million was for a plasma injector system the company activated in June of 2010 and had hoped would significantly reduce the cooking odour coming from the plant’s stacks. A number of factors prevented the injectors from doing their job, mainly the inability for the high-tech system to deal with fat molecules from Champion’s fresh meat ingredients. The company had hoped the installation of Venturi scrubbers ahead of the plasma injection process would do the trick and had projected a timeline of Aug. 31 for completion of that project. However, in visiting European plants and bringing in an expert from the Netherlands this spring, it was determined considerably more work would be required.
Summer revealed more work to be done
Champion’s President and CEO Frank Burdzy said he toured a number of plants in the Europe in May of this year, after which data on what Champion had already done in Morinville was sent to an expert for analysis. The data was analyzed for approximately eight weeks, during which time Champion continued to work on other changes at the plant, including operator training to better manage air flow through rates and temperatures in the facility. A conference call was held in early August with the expert wherein a more comprehensive plan was outlined based on the data and the plant’s processes.
“The biggest issue for us was we were progressing on other paths at the same time,” Burdzy said. “If he [the expert] would have confirmed for us that we were on the right path, then we would have just continued down that path and had the manufacturing of the equipment in place. Really what happened is we didn’t have just one process underway. We were doing the other things on the side.”
Burdzy explained the $2.5 to $3 million investment in infrastructure would include properly segregating various parts of the plant, upgraded work to the plant’s airflow systems, and upgrades to the odour mitigation equipment. The additional investment could bring the total price tag to approximately $3.7 million to solve the odour problem.
Additionally, the plant is installing a state-of-the-art packaging line to increase plant performance and employee safety and addressing waste water management processes. “Really what we are doing is converting our plant from what was a traditional feed mill approach to a food facility,” Burdzy said of the broader work. “That requires everything from quality assurance, new processes for our employees and training for our employees. There’s a lot of soft skills related to uniforms and things like that going into changing methodology and mentality of the plant to make it more of a commercial kitchen orientation than a production plant. Those are all big dollars going into this facility and the people we’ve got here.”
Champion currently employs 169 workers between its Morinville and Edmonton operations. Of those, 70 per cent work in Morinville and 60 per cent reside in the community.
Champion has taken public criticism from residents and the media for not having the problem solved by now and for having not kept residents updated on the progress over the summer. Champion had previously taken a booth in the Chamber’s trade show last spring, a public relations opportunity that was well received by those who stopped to talk. However, broad communication with residents ended with a mail out sent shortly after the trade show, and Champion was not immediately forthcoming with a public update when it was realized more time was needed.
“Would we or could we or should we have been communicating at that point?” Burdzy asked rhetorically. “We thought the most prudent thing to do would be to get back to first of all administration and secondly to council to be able to give them an opportunity to understand and hear what our issues were, and to help them understand our situation. At the end, not only will I get the feedback from the community but they will as well. We thought before we start communicating widely and broadly through direct mail or other sources that we had good dialogue first with administration and council.”
Another area of criticism has been the promised but not realized open house the company had said it would hold for area residents. “We did commit to do that,” Burdzy said. “It should be a show and tell and up to now we had things to tell and didn’t have a whole lot to show because the infrastructure changes were only in the planning stages.” The Champion CEO said he anticipates the open house will be later in the year, certainly prior to Christmas. “Certainly when we’ve got evidence we’ve made good progress in all those areas,” he said.
Ready for potential backlash
Mayor Bertschi said he understands residents will be upset with further delays, but he completely understands where Champion is coming to their conclusions for the need for more time. “I’m extremely hopeful their timelines are going to be there,” the mayor said. “They’ve outlined a good, solid process that will solve this issue and I’m absolutely convinced that Frank and Champion and their ownership are 100 per cent committed to solving this.”
Morinville Town Council had previously committed to a $60,000 tax break to the plant, to be broken down over five years. When the plasma injectors failed to do their intended job, the tax break was withheld and will not be realized until the odour problem is completely resolved.
Those wishing to talk to Champion Petfoods regarding the odour mitigation situation can do so by calling 1-855-784-0340 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.