If you like stories about the power of the people and their persistence in the face of political indifference at the highest level, you’ve come to the right place.
Last fall, the St. Boniface constituency point man for embattled Premier Greg Selinger sent an email to a group of area residents who had requested a meeting with their MLA about a potentially hazardous metal shredder that had recently started systematically slicing up old cars using a device known by its common scrap-metal industry name. A shredder.
"A community is great because of the people and more importantly their willingness to sacrifice time and energy to preserve the qualities which we enjoy in St. Boniface," the email from Selinger’s constituency executive assistant Tom Scott began. "We are fortunate that in St. Boniface, we have organizations with people such as yours."
That bit of buttering up was followed by a sentence the group now known as the South St. Boniface Residents Association took as a slap in the face.
"I am sorry, but Greg would not be able to meet with your organization any time within the next two months, so he has asked if it would be possible for you to arrange a meeting that I could attend and report back to him."
And so, over the last five months, the group that today consists of nine members began a relentless email campaign. At the top of their lists were the Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Division of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, their city councillor Matt Allard and Tom Scott, who deals with the little people of St. Boniface when Selinger is too busy with the big people.
By early October, a month after the shredder began operating, the group had begun collecting names on a petition to shut down an operation they considered to be a potential health hazard. By December, the Conservation Department had partially shut down the shredder operation because the company hadn’t removed an on-site stockpile of leftovers from the shredding process, so-called automobile shredder residue, also known as ASR, or "fluff." Industrial Metals has also been charged with two alleged breaches of its environmental operating licence because of the fluff buildup. The company has pleaded not guilty.
Josh and Dan Chisick, the 37-year-old twin brothers who are partners in Industrial Metals, say the shredder cost "upwards of $15 million" and they’re trying to work with the province to comply with the licence. But fluff is far from the only issue that concerns the residents association.
After months of relentless emailing, the group would voice their concerns and their demands during a Jan.27 meeting with Don Labossiere, the province’s director of environmental compliance and enforcement. Labossiere had finally taken personal charge of the issue. Three weeks later, when the director hadn’t completed a response to the minutes from the meeting, the group fired off an angry letter.
"Over, the past seven months," the letter addressed to Labossiere stated, "we have tried to work with your department and our local MLA to resolve these issues. We waited three months to arrange a simple meeting. We are extremely disappointed with your efforts to date."
The group said Labossiere’s department shouldn’t have waited until December to issue a partial shutdown.
"There are 49 general terms and conditions listed in the licence," the letter went on to remind the director of compliance. "By our count, there are 15 major conditions that Industrial Metals is not complying with, or where additional monitoring, testing, analyzing or sampling is required."
Over the phone this week, I read that paragraph to Labossiere and asked for a reaction. There are only two issues that have "traction," as far as Labossiere is concerned.
"One is the compliance issues regarding the shredder residue that’s accumulated on their property," he said. "The other is there have been some concerns that there have been a handful of auto shredders in the United States that air monitoring has indicated that there is heavy metals like lead, and (hexavalent) chromium that seem to be emitted from some of these shredders."
Hexavalent chromium, he acknowledged is classified as a carcinogen.
The Chisicks contend their new shredder is essentially state-of-the-art. But Labossiere, using his legislated authority as director of compliance, said he has decided to conduct an air-monitoring study on Industrial Metals as soon as they have removed the pile of ASR and the shredder is being fed automobiles.
Which brings me back to Greg Selinger.
It was Oct. 16, just 11 days after his constituency man emailed the little names from South St. Boniface Residents Association to say "sorry" his boss was too busy for the next two months to meet with them that the premier made time to meet with a big name.
The headline on the news release that followed summed up the meeting in these words: Manitoba First Province To Sign Right To Healthy Environment Declaration Championed By Dr. David Suzuki: Premier Selinger.
It’s just one more example of why a politically out-of-touch premier and his party appear destined to end up where all tired and out-of-touch governments eventually go. In the electoral shredder of their own creation.
Updated on Saturday, February 27, 2016 at 8:39 AM CST: Adds photo