You asked us to go to Meaford. So we did

Residents of Meaford, Ont., asked us to dig into TC Energy’s proposed battery project for two years. This fall, reporter Fatima Syed finally set her sights on it
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Image of a woman standing on a dock talking to a man on her right, both facing the blue water in Meaford, Ontario.

“Meaford, like so many small rural towns, is undergoing massive transformation with developers itching to build, build, build and build more here. While this is somewhat concerning, one development in particular has many in our area upset.” 

That’s an email we got from a reader in November 2021, just months after we launched The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau. And since then, the requests have kept coming, asking us to report on TC Energy’s proposal to build what it calls “Ontario’s battery” — an energy storage project on Georgian Bay in Meaford.

The technology is called pumped storage, and the plan is to use excess energy to bring water up through the escarpment into a reservoir on a Department of National Defence property, then send it back down again when electricity is needed. 

Meaford residents told us they were concerned the project would harm the bay, or the wildlife in and around it, or the homes underneath the reservoir. Many also said they were wary of the company behind the proposal, TC Energy, and its environmental track record, including a recent oil spill in Kansas and damage to waterways during construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C. There’s also the issue of undetonated military explosives on the site, as well as federally protected species at risk
An aerial view of cottage and homes on Georgian Beach in Meaford, Ontario

It took two years — there’s a lot to cover in Ontario! — but reporter Fatima Syed finally set her sights on Meaford this fall. She and photojournalist Christopher Katsarov Luna spent two days there, interviewing opponents of the project, but also people who are cautiously hopeful. 

The chiefs of Saugeen Ojibway Nation told her they believe participation in the planning process is the best way to protect Georgian Bay and to get a fair deal for their people, who weren’t asked when a nearby nuclear power plant was built decades ago. Local politicians explained why they voted for the proposal. TC Energy’s man on the ground in Meaford told her he loves the bright blue bay himself — and that the company is committed to having the project unfold in a way that respects the surrounding environment

Fatima’s story is meaty and complex, diving into the tension between the need for clean energy and the desire to protect one of Ontario’s most beautiful places. We sat down to discuss how she reported on a story that so many people feel so strongly about. Read on below for our conversation.

Take care and spread good energy,

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief
Denise Balkissoon headshot
Photo of reporter Fatima Syed talking to a military personnel in Meaford, Ontario.

Denise: Congratulations on getting this story done. It’s taken a long time. How do you feel?

Fatima: I am excited for people to learn about Meaford. We’ve been trying to figure out how to tell energy stories in Ontario and here is an example that really illustrates what’s at stake when we want to do two big things — solve the problem of the province’s looming energy supply crunch and also protect the environment. It’s a very, very complicated intersection to navigate.

Denise: Why do you think energy stories are hard to tell?

Fatima: They’re very technical. That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is that there’s very little access to the energy industry in Ontario. It’s a very media-shy space. There aren’t a lot of people openly talking about what solutions are being tried and what’s working and what isn’t. 

The third thing is, I think energy is often taken for granted. We just assume it’s always going to be there. But right now in Ontario, in the industry at least, they’re having a conversation about what happens when it’s not there. It’s so daunting that I think no one really knows how to talk about it.
Cottages and forest along Georgian Beach south of the location of the proposed TC Energy Pumped Storage Project in Meaford, Ontario

Denise: For people who don’t follow this as closely as you do, we are running out of energy because nuclear plants are going offline or being refurbished at the same time that we’re trying to electrify everything to hopefully move away from fossil fuels. This is why the Ontario government has asked the energy industry to think about storage, which is how this pumped storage proposal came to be. 

Fatima: Usually, the energy industry is very regulated. The government says “Here’s what we want and here’s how we’re going to do it.” This time around, because the problem is so big, it said “If you have a good idea, tell us.” 

Enter TC Energy in 2019 saying “We have this great idea. We’ve been thinking about pumped storage. And we think we found the perfect location in Ontario that has everything for us to do this.” There’s a lot of water. It’s next to a cliff with the exact elevation to create the movement to create power. And it’s close to a nuclear facility that TC Energy partly owns, and all the connections to get power to southern Ontario where energy needs are highest.

So TC Energy submits a proposal, and for the past four years there has been vigorous debate about whether it’s the right thing for Ontario. There’s a lot at stake

Denise: As part of that vigorous debate, a lot of very engaged citizens have been asking us to report on this for two years. How did we finally get around to doing it? 

Fatima: We met a couple who gave us a big folder full of well-organized documents — I’m talking about stuff they obtained from freedom of information legislation, council minutes and other news clippings which made my life easier. 

Denise: Which was, basically, the first stage of our research. That was the first time we really looked at all the pieces and understood why people wanted us to do it.
A woman points at Georgian Bay from a lookout at the top of the escarpment in Meaford, Ontario

Fatima: There’s another piece that really put a fire under our butts: Energy Minister Todd Smith is expected to make a decision on pumped storage projects, including this one, on Nov. 30. It’s the perfect time to tell the story. Let’s go to Meaford! 

Denise: You went for two days with photojournalist Chris Luna, who does beautiful work. 

Fatima: I think in the course of two days we met 50 people all over Meaford. We went to the town. We spent a lot of time on the escarpment visiting farms, cottages. We also went to Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation and looked at the bay from their lands. We met Meaford’s mayor and politicians and so many people who aren’t even quoted in the story. 

But the thing that struck me the most is Georgian Bay. What’s special about the water from Meaford is you can literally see the whole coastline. And that was very magical. It was very clear, very blue — very, very untouched. There is literally nothing around the bay. No matter where I went in Meaford, I could see the water

I was also struck by how emotional everyone was about this project. And it wasn’t from a place of “We literally don’t want power, or we don’t want clean energy, or we don’t want TC Energy here.” It was just: “Is this going to ruin everything that we love about this place?” No matter what perspective I heard, that was at the core of it. At all costs, nothing should touch this water. That was really moving. 

It’s hard to tell energy stories that have divided a community. Usually it’s very much, you know, “We don’t want it in our backyard, just go away.” This was a community grappling with the idea that “We really do need power, we recognize the need for clean energy for a growing community — but can we do that in a way that will not hurt the environment around us?” That’s a really hard conversation to have. 

Some of their concerns were based in fear, as a lot of things are when something new is coming to town. Some of them might be legitimate. But mostly it was just like, we really don’t want anything to harm this water.
A man walks past a “no trespassing” sign marking the perimeters of properties close to National Defence lands in Meaford, Ont.

Denise: To me, the military activity actually seemed like the bigger environmental risk. Pumped storage is something that has been done for over 100 years, there are other projects that we could learn from. But having a bunch of explosives in the soil means a lot of heavy metals, a lot of toxins that would be disturbed and could definitely harm wildlife and water. National Defence told us they have no idea how many undetonated explosives are on the site, which seems … not great. 

Fatima: TC Energy says it’s doing everything it needs to do to get this project moving forward. They’ve hired all the experts and are starting all the studies to figure out whether this environment can support a clean energy project without harming land and water and the people that live around it. 

Oftentimes when you write a story like this, you want to come to a conclusion. Should this project be built in Meaford? Is it the right thing for Ontario? And I think at the moment, I can’t answer that question. 

What I can say is, it does seem like all the intentions are there from everyone — TC Energy, the Meaford community, the First Nations, the military, the federal government, the Ontario government — they don’t want Georgian Bay to be harmed. Whether they’re going to be able to accomplish that remains to be seen.


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