A Chinese company planning to build a $450-million float glass factory in Guelph-Eramosa invited neighbours to an information session on Saturday, but some residents left with more questions than answers — about traffic concerns, the company’s water taking and how it will affect their quality of life.
Xinyi Glass Canada Limited is planning to build a two-million square foot float glass plant on a tract of land on Wellington Road 32 near the intersection with Wellington Road 124.
The Guelph-Eramosa site was one of about 20 from across North America to be considered by the company.
About 50 people packed into a farmhouse on the proposed site for an information meeting on Saturday hosted by the company.
The neighbouring residents were shown a presentation about the proposed plant before the floor was opened up to questions.
The parcel of land to be used for the proposed plant totals about 120 acres — about one kilometre long and half a kilometre deep. The proposed two-million square foot plant will dominate much of the property, with a 300-foot smokestack towering over it.
Xinyi is in the due diligence stage of purchasing the property, said Daniel Lau, senior advisor of business development for Xinyi.
The site was favoured because of its proximity to roads and a rail line that runs adjacent to the property, as well as nearby natural gas — which will be used to power the furnace.
In addition, the site’s proximity to the Canadian and U.S. auto sector and advanced manufacturing hubs was seen as a plus.
“About 60 per cent of the product will be exported to the U.S., earning valuable balance of trade back to Canada,” said Lau.
Once the purchase and planning for the site are finalized, Lau said the plant will become operational within two years and will employ about 400 workers.
“Elsewhere we have done it in 12 to 13 months or 18 months at most. Now, we do it in maybe 20 or 24 months — it’s the longest. But we respect that this is Canada and we have to go through the process,” said Lau.
A small number of immediate neighbours were invited to the meeting on Saturday, but numbers grew as word spread.
Susan McSherry heard about the proposed plant through media reports late last week. She was told about the meeting when she contacted her ward councillor and decided to show up and hear about the company’s plans first hand.
“It was a clandestine kind of meeting for 30 people in the immediate area. We’re all impacted — everybody within several miles of this plant,” said McSherry.
During the presentation, detailed architectural drawings and maps were shown. Speaking to GuelphToday after the meeting, McSherry wondered how so much planning had been completed when she and neighbours only just learned about the proposed development last week.
“We are concerned about how far down the road things have gotten without any public involvement or feedback. There is a lack of information and transparency. There is nothing coming out of council that is providing any information,” said McSherry.
During the presentation, residents were told about the expected benefits to the community, including the creation of 400 jobs and the rebuilding of the glass industry in Canada.
Neighbouring residents seemed far more interested in the potential negative effects the plant may have, chief among them the 1,600 tonnes — or 1,600,000 litres — of water needed every day for the cooling system.
The plant’s water needs will be drawn from a series of wells to be drilled on the property.
“How will you guarantee that my well isn’t going to go dry or get poisoned because of an accident?” asked a neighbouring resident.
Representatives for the company explained the water is part of a closed system and is not released back into the aquifer.
Some water will also be used in the treatment of emissions, said Lau, including sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide.
“It will be evaporated,” Lau told the residents.
“All of those things together create acid rain,” noted another resident.
The reason for the 300-foot tall stack, said Lau, was to allow for the extraction of those chemicals, and also to ensure the final emissions are released high enough to disperse, but he acknowledged those chemicals can contribute to acid rain.
Traffic is another concern of residents. Once operational, 80 to 100 trucks are expected to come and go from the plant at all hours of the day and up to 130 employees will come and go at peak times, spread over the course of a few hours.
The county is already planning to add a roundabout to the intersection of 124 and 32 to alleviate some of the existing traffic concerns, said Chris White, mayor of Guelph-Eramosa.
Xinyi plans on applying to have turning lanes installed at the entrance to the property, as well as an additional traffic signal on Wellington Road 32.
In addition, much of the raw material used in glass-making will arrive by rail, which Xinyi representatives said will keep additional trucks out of the area.
A resident said those trains may cause even more congestion in the areas it crosses the highway as its cargo is offloaded.
Neighbouring residents were also concerned about a plan by the company to have dwelling units on site for up to 50 employees.
Xinyi representatives said the accommodations are necessary, as the plant requires specially-trained professionals for operation and training.
Some residents wondered why the employees have to be accommodated on-site, instead of supporting local hotels.
“Not being part of our community — that’s a concern,” said McSherry.
Lau told GuelphToday that the accommodations will mostly be used in the first few years of the plant’s operation.
Because there are no float glass plants currently in Canada, said Lau, specialized staff will have to be brought in from other parts of the world.
“Once they are here, we want to provide them with reasonable living facilities,” said Lau.
A Guelph-based project manager job currently being advertised by the company states speaking Mandarin as a requirement. Lau said that is because the project manager will have to communicate back and forth with head office in China and that speaking Mandarin will not be a requirement for jobs at the plant.
“Our intention is a long-term successful business, built on the support and strength of the local community. Using local human resources is very important, because they will stay with a good employer,” said Lau.
White said it was not township council’s intention to keep residents in the dark about the proposed plant, but noted that there are currently no plans or applications filed by the company.
“Until we get an official site plan or release from the company, we can’t talk about it because it’s private business,” said White.
The selection process is a competitive one, said White, and it was not the township’s place to spill the beans about the proposal.
“Of course they are going to go out to the properties and kick the tires,” he said.
McSherry said the more answers the company gives, the more questions she has about the project.
“Everything seems premature, and yet it sounds to me like it’s a done deal,” said McSherry.
She added, “the fact that Xinyi is present is appreciated. That doesn’t negate the fact that we are still missing information and that is critical.”
White said he appreciates the concerns he hears from the neighbours, and admitted he shares some of them.
“We want to make sure the impact to the residents is minimized. We want to make sure the traffic is going to flow properly. The water situation — the concerns about the wells — has to be answered and taken care of. We have a responsibility to the residents, so we want to make sure all due diligence is being followed and they are taking the citizens’ concerns seriously,” said White.
At the same time, said White, the property currently brings in about $4,000 a year in tax revenue. When it is operational, the plant will likely become the township’s largest taxpayer.
“It’s potentially huge and that kind of revenue should help the residents as well to keep their taxes low and to help us improve the infrastructure,” said White.