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Curious and concerned Monteregie residents meet with Northvolt battery plant execs

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Executives from the future Northvolt battery plant, which will receive $7.3 billion in provincial and federal aid, held an information session for the residents of McMasterville in the Montérégie region on Wednesday evening.

Hundreds of residents turned out at a high school for the first in a series of meetings with Northvolt representatives.

"We want to make the greenest battery in the world," said Laurent Therrien, Northvolt's communications director for North America, "but you have to understand that the word 'factory' may be a bit of a misnomer [...] we could be thinking more of a high-tech facility, so it's robotized for most of the operations."

Various kiosks were set up in the school cafeteria, and residents were invited to ask Northvolt employees, most of them Europeans, questions about the company's values, workforce requirements and the plant's environmental impact.

While several citizens interviewed by The Canadian Press seemed satisfied with the company's answers, others, like Geneviève Cousineau, a former McMasterville resident who now lives in La Prairie, had the "impression that not all her questions were answered."

She's part of a group of citizens who have launched a petition against the project.

According to the signatories, the 350-metre buffer zone between residences and the plant is inadequate, and they're worried about the noise, odour and transportation impacts associated with battery production.

"We're concerned, and we expected to be able to ask questions of senior executives," said Cousineau during an exchange with spokesperson Laurent Therrien, who offered a meeting with the company president in return.

Louise Boucher, who was listening attentively to the conversation between Cousineau and Therrien, made it clear that she did not "share the fears of certain citizens."

"There's going to be a company, and there's nothing to tell us that it's not a good company. On the contrary, all the references we've been given are good. It's not a mine -- they're not mining, it looks clean. I've just had a look around and I'm reassured," said Boucher, who lives very close to the site where the plant will be built.

Nearby, Louis Berthiaume, who "came to do his civic duty," was reassured to learn that most of the emissions from the plant would be water vapour.

"Still, there are processes that have been skipped," argued Berthiaume, referring to the public environmental hearings office, or BAPE.

"The largest manufacturing investment in Quebec's history," as Premier François Legault has called it, may not be subject to assessment by the BAPE; in February, Quebec amended a regulation allowing the Northvolt to escape BAPE scrutiny, according to information first reported by Radio-Canada.

The Northvolt plant's production capacity would be 56,000 metric tonnes. Quebec's regulation was amended to avoid a BAPE assessment for battery plants producing 60,000 metric tonnes or less.

"Whether or not we are subject to the BAPE, we will comply with Quebec's environmental legislation," and "we will not be asking for any special treatment under the law," said Therrien, adding that "it is not our prerogative to determine whether or not BAPE applies, that's the prerogative of the Quebec government."

He said, "dozens, if not a hundred civil servants are currently scrutinizing our project and wondering what its impacts will be."

WETLANDS AND PROTECTED SPECIES

Wetlands will be destroyed during plant construction, and an endangered bird species will be affected by site activities.

"We will try to avoid wetlands as much as possible, and avoid the area that is inhabited by the protected species that is the little bittern, and if we don't manage to avoid them completely, we have an obligation to compensate," said Therrien.

"We can compensate by creating new wetlands, or by providing financial compensation."

IMPACT ON WATER

Therrien also explained that "the vast majority of water" drawn by the plant from the Richelieu River will be used to cool manufacturing processes.

"It cools our processes and then we bring it back to the river's initial temperature and return it to the river in its original state."

He added that another portion of the water drawn will be used to clean certain minerals, "but then it's filtered right in our plant, and it stays in a closed circuit in the plant, so water that has touched the product will never be returned to the river."

Northvolt intends to completely "discharge and crush" the batteries it manufactures when they reach end-of-life. The copper, aluminum and plastics will be sent to partners for recycling. The remaining powder, known as "black mass," will be processed in another Norhtvolt-owned center to recover the metals, which will then be used to manufacture other batteries.

Therrien said he had visited Norhtvolt's Swedish plant a few weeks ago.

"When I left the plant, I asked those with me to stop for two seconds, so that everyone could be quiet. Then I tell you, there was complete silence on site, so it's very quiet. There's going to be virtually no noise," said the spokesperson.

TRUCK TRAFFIC

Construction of the plant is expected to generate between 100 and 150 truck movements per day, which is "less than 1 per cent of the daily movements recorded on Route 116," which passes close to the facilities, according Therrien, who added that the company intends to give preference to rail transport during the production phase.

Northvolt also intends to promote using lithium and critical minerals from Quebec.

Currently, there are no active lithium mines in Quebec, but a number of projects in the James Bay region could come to fruition in the next few years.

Northvolt plans to prepare the plant site this fall, begin construction of some buildings in 2024, "deliver products to customers" in 2026, and complete the first construction phase in 2028.

Many residents will closely follow these development phases, like Isabelle Plante, who was surprised to hear the premier say that the largest manufacturing project in the province's history would be coming to her backyard.

"Taking the pulse of this meeting tonight, I see people who are curious, I see people who are discovering things, new technologies, I see people who are in favour, but it's mixed -- there are also people who are against it. It's both worrying and interesting," said Plante, who plans to get involved in a citizens' advisory committee set up by the municipality of McMasterville to ensure that the project meets the population's expectations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Oct. 5, 2023.  

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