By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Failed ethanol plant.
Those three words have echoed in
the minds of many an Oshawa resident, politician and municipal staff member over the past decade.
While the ethanol plant proposed by FarmTech Energy in the early half of the decade never saw the light of day, the possibility of another project coming forward was in the back of the minds of those with an interest in business at Oshawa’s Harbour.
Those fears were officially put to bed recently when Ian Hamilton, the CEO and president of the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority informed members of Oshawa’s harbour working group they have no interest in pursuing an ethanol plant.
Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson told The Oshawa Express this was welcome news to those who fought against the FarmTech proposal for so many years.
In Nicholson’s view, the ethanol plant would have been a “job killer” for the harbour instead of a “job creator.”
Whether that is true is a moot point now, but for the first half of the past decade, the ethanol plant issue was one of the most controversial in the City of Oshawa.
After contemplating a number of potential sites, FarmTech proposed the 12-hectare, $185 million ethanol plant at the Oshawa Harbour in 2007.
As the lands were owned by the then-Oshawa Harbour Commission, the company did not require the city’s direction, but did need a zoning amendment on the property for the project to move forward.
Then Mayor and now Ward 5 city councillor John Gray was a vocal opponent to the ethanol plant, stating it didn’t fit in well with Oshawa’s plan for the waterfront.
FarmTech president Dan O’Connor said he would appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board if the city didn’t support the zoning amendment.
While there were many who were opposed to the idea, including local environmentalists such as Friends of Second Marsh, others were strongly in favour, stating it would bring business and jobs to the city.
Some saw an ethanol plant in Oshawa as a viable idea, just not at the waterfront.
Through the rest of 2008 and into 2009, the debate continued.
On another front, the Harper government announced plans to create a Port Authority to oversee Oshawa’s harbour.
In September 2009, FarmTech withdrew its application for a certificate of approval from the Ministry of Environment, with plans to repackage the bid.
The application was subsequently resubmitted, then withdrawn again in January 2010, prompting some opponents to declare the plan “dead.”
Meanwhile, the city and federal government were in the midst of negotiating a deal, announced in July 2010, which saw the feds return 48 acres of harbourfront land back to the city, and provide $19
million in funding for clean up and land revitalization.
At the same time, Oshawa MP Colin Carrie downplayed the possibility of an ethanol plant coming to Oshawa, as funding for biofuel projects had already been handed out.
But in May 2011, it was revealed FarmTech’s proposal was still eligible for federal funding, creating fears in opponents the project was still alive.
By this time, John Henry was Oshawa’s new mayor, having defeated Gray in the 2010 municipal election.
In summer 2011, Henry began an aggressive campaign to voice Oshawa’s status as an “unwilling host” of an ethanol plant.
Henry even wrote to names such as Prince Charles, David Suzuki, and Margaret Atwood hoping to garner their support.
In September 2011, then Minister of Finance the late-Jim Flaherty said the battle over the ethanol plant was between the city and harbour commission.
Just days before the 2011 provincial election, Ontario Liberal Party officials cried foul over the fact Tim O’Connor, a FarmTech director, was serving as the campaign manager of Whitby-Oshawa Conservative candidate Christine Elliott, Flaherty’s wife.
In early 2012, the Oshawa Port Authority was formed, replacing the former Oshawa Harbour Commission.
Then, on Aug. 9, 2012, word came out the OPA had approved FarmTech’s ethanol plant proposal, with plans to open in 2014.
The move angered, but did not necessarily shock, local politicians.
Then regional councillor Nester Pidwerbecki said he believed the approval had been “orchestrated” for some time.
Over the next few months, a number of meetings on the ethanol plant were held, with opposition becoming more intense by the day.
City council and NDP MP Olivia Chow even called for Canada’s ethics commissioner to investigate the relationship between Flaherty, FarmTech, and members of the OPA board, claiming the approval of the
plant reeked of “cronyism.” The request was ultimately denied.
News on the project was relatively slow throughout the first part of 2013, but OPA board chair Gary Valcour said in July 2013 he believed construction would begin by the end of the year.
But over the next three years there were few updates from Valcour and others at the OPA.
As reported by the Oshawa Express in September 2017, problems were brewing between FarmTech and the port authority.
Legal documents obtained by The Express show the OPA sent a notice to FarmTech that its lease at the harbour was at risk of termination.
O’Connor later appeared before the OPA’s board asking to discuss the issues, but this didn’t happen, and FarmTech’s lease was terminated in August 2014.
But, the lease contained a clause stating if the two sides came to a disagreement which could not be settled mutually, it would automatically go to arbitration.
It was more than two years later the OPA announced the ethanol project was dead.
The news was met with applause at a council meeting in November 2016.
The next summer it was announced the OPA was on the hook for $4.1 million to FarmTech, which resulted in the auditor of the organization’s 2016 financial statements raising concerns about the port moving forward.
During the port authority’s 2017 annual general meeting, there were calls for Valcour and other board members to apologize to the city and its residents over the fiasco, and even resign.
Whether or not the OPA paid all or any of what it owed to FarmTech is a question which was never publicly answered.
With the ethanol plant idea behind them, the OPA forged ahead. Another disagreement over the extension of Harbour Road reared its head in late-2018.
But then in February 2019, the federal government made the shocking announcement that it was planning to merge the port authorities of Oshawa and Hamilton.
Despite some local opposition, the move went ahead in June, and the newly amalgamated Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority was born.
While the idea of an ethanol plant at Oshawa’s port was laid to rest a while ago, officials from this newly merged entity seem to have shovelled the last mound of dirt onto the concept for the time being.