City of North Bay officials advised an international plastics company to “hold off” on granting journalists’ requests for a tour of its new factory after a 2023 Narwhal investigation, writing in an email that “hopefully, the story dies,” documents obtained via freedom of information requests show. 

The documents also show city officials providing advice to the company in question, Industrial Plastics Canada, about how to respond to public concern, as well as co-ordinating North Bay’s response with company president Andrea Arlati.

Last summer, The Narwhal looked into the historical presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in Nipissing Region water, and the planned use of the chemicals at a new plant owned by Industrial Plastics Canada, whose parent company is Italy-based Guarniflon.

Chemicals are forever” was published on July 6, 2023. It detailed how past Department of National Defence training contaminated much of the region’s water with PFAS, as well as citizens’ unanswered questions about how Industrial Plastics Canada received permission to open and how the company would ensure its operations didn’t release PFAS into soil, water or air. 

Commonly known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS can linger in the environment for centuries if improperly disposed of. Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have identified potential health risks of exposure including reproductive problems, increased risk of certain cancers and developmental effects in infants and children. Exposure can reduce seed germination, and stunt growth in plants. The chemicals can also build up in the organs of living creatures.

Last year, a company spokesman told The Narwhal its plan to use a specific class of PFAS known as fluoropolymers will not produce waste and poses “no risk.” The company also said fluoropolymers aren’t as dangerous as other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and are “considered safe, non-bioaccumulative and non-toxic.”

An email exchange between Andrea Arlati, president of Industrial Plastics Canada, and Gord Young, communications officer for North Bay. Arlati says, in part, "I was also thinking about showing the factory to journalists that we think will be fair. Do you see any downside ...?" And Young replying: "I think it would be better to hold off until you open. If all reponses go out to all the media today, hopefully, the story dies. Media tours next week owuld only keep it alive."
An excerpt of emails sent between North Bay officials and Industrial Plastics Canada, released through freedom of information legislation. This one shows communications officer Gord Young advising company president Andrea Arlati to “hold off” on media tours of the new factory until it opens. Source: City of North Bay

Now, hundreds of pages of email correspondence show North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico asking that city council be briefed on “PFAS and other chemicals and the opening of this plant” in the days after the story’s publication. They also show the city co-ordinating with the company before releasing a public statement from Chirico on July 11. 

“Here’s a first stab at a statement for the mayor. We can refine based on the information [Industrial Plastics Canada] plans to issue,” North Bay’s communications officer, Gord Young, emailed a colleague at lunchtime the day it was released. 

Young sent the draft to Arlati later that day: “Thanks for providing your draft news release …” the city official told Industrial Plastics Canada’s president. “It was useful in preparing the following statement which we plan to circulate … Please let me know if [you have] any questions or concerns.” 

“It’s perfect, Gord! Thank you very much!” Arlati responded that evening. The next day, Industrial Plastics released its own statement, issued after Young sent feedback on a draft, urging the company to “consider placing greater emphasis on how your facility and process will not impact the environment rather than on the science surrounding PFAS.” 

An emails sent from North Bay's economic development manager, Erin Richmond, released through freedom of information legislation. Sent to North Bay communications officer Gord Young and Andrea Arlati, president of Industrial Plastics Canada, it reads, in part: "Here is a link to the unfortunate story. Given this is circulating on social media and we're starting to receive some questions, I'd like to prepare a few clarifying statements for your approval, to share with our members of senior management and City Council."
An email sent by North Bay economic development manager Erin Richmond, to recipients including Industrial Plastics Canada president Andrea Arlati, released via freedom of information legislation. Source: City of North Bay

The new documents contain emails sent between July 6 and July 20 last year. In one, North Bay’s economic development manager, Erin Richmond, tells Young and Arlati The Narwhal’s original investigation is “unfortunate.” In another, sent to Chirico, Young and other city staff, Richmond calls the story “disappointing.” 

The Narwhal was able to tour the factory before its investigation, after which CBC and CTV both covered the public’s concern. On July 12, Arlati emailed Young, asking: “I was also thinking about showing the factory to journalists that we think will be fair. Do you see any downside … ?” 

Young responded: “I think it would be better to hold off until you open. If responses go out to the media today, hopefully, the story dies. Media tours next week would only keep it alive.”  

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North Bay requested fees of up to $514 to fulfill freedom of information requests

“That’s a pretty irresponsible attitude for the city to take,” Liza Vandermeer from the Trout Lake Conservation Association said when told of the emails’ contents. “Unfortunately, it’s reflective of their attitude towards all the PFAS issues,” she added, referring to the decades-long contamination of Trout Lake and Lee’s Creek from firefighting activity.

“Instead of actually trying to keep the public informed, they’re just hoping that if they don’t say anything, people will not ask questions, which to me is a really out-of-date attitude towards environmental issues,” Vandermeer said. After the investigation, concerned citizens formed advocacy groups and held town hall meetings. The Narwhal detailed concerns North Bay and Nipissing First Nation residents had over two follow up stories. 

The small marina at the Trout Lake Trading Company is an active site for swimmers, boaters, and North Bay residents that enjoy life next to this beautiful body of water. However, forever chemicals remain in Trout Lake from a foam that was used to train firefighters in the 1970s to 1990s by the Department of National Defence.
Much of the water in Nipissing region is contaminated with PFAS from past firefighting training by the Department of National Defence. Last year, Industrial Plastics Canada told The Narwhal its plan to use a specific class of PFAS known as fluoropolymers will not produce waste and poses “no risk.” Photo: Vanessa Tignanelli / The Narwhal

The City of North Bay did not respond to detailed questions about these email exchanges. The released documents include drafts of the mayor’s July 11 statement, which said in part the company “will not manufacture raw plastics on site, and its operations will not have any impact on local watercourses. The facility will not discharge to land, or water. Air standards will be required to comply with Ontario environmental legislation and regulations like all manufacturers in the City of North Bay and within the Province of Ontario.”

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, which monitors pollutants in Ontario, did not respond to questions about how Industrial Plastics received a permit to operate, and why there was no public consultation period beforehand. 

Industrial Plastics Canada also did not respond to detailed questions. For a previous story, a company spokesperson told The Narwhal, “We at [Industrial Plastics Canada] comply with all government regulations and standards to ensure the safe production of our plastics … These mandates are set by organizations such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Labour, and we strictly adhere to them.” Arlati also shared a YouTube video posted by an India-based chemical company, Gujarat Fluorochemicals, arguing fluoropolymers are safer than other PFAS, as well as a 2018 review of scientific information on fluoropolymers that states they are “polymers of low concern” and should be considered separately from other PFAS by regulators. 

North Bay met many of The Narwhal’s freedom of information requests with requests for fees, ranging from $4 to $514. It also denied the fee waivers often granted for matters of public interest. The city clerk’s office responded to one waiver request saying it did not “feel” The Narwhal met the “burden of proof that this matter is a matter of public interest that is directly tied to public health and safety.” Internal conversations and public events suggest citizens felt differently. 

An email from a redacted sender to City of North Bay staff that reads, in part: "I am strongly concerned about the health concerns about these chemicals. What will the city be doing to prevent the chemicals from poisoning the water supply? I am really concerned about being able to live in North Bay if this factory will be in operation here."
North Bay denied fee waivers for freedom of information requests, saying The Narwhal’s requests did not meet “the burden of proof that this … is a matter of public interest … ” Recently released emails show a number of citizen emailed the city with concerns after learning about Industrial Plastics Canada’s plans. Source: City of North Bay

According to the obtained documents, on July 8 the same city clerk’s office received a message from a North Bay resident: “What will the city be doing to prevent the chemicals from poisoning the water supply? I am really concerned about being able to live in North Bay if this factory will be in operation here.” On July 9, Councillor Justine Mallah emailed the mayor and two other colleagues, saying, “I’ve received numerous messages this weekend from citizens with concerns about the Industrial Plastics Canada’s factory in North Bay. Can we please meet to discuss this?” Mallah told The Narwhal that meeting never happened. 

And in March 2024, many months after The Narwhal’s story, over 100 residents attended a community information session on PFAS organized by Northwatch. Although the meeting focused mainly on past contamination, residents also brought up concerns about Industrial Plastics Canada’s activities. 

North Bay has been called out in the past for not being transparent with journalists. In 2020, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded the city a Code of Silence award for “outstanding achievement in government secrecy,” which association president Brent Jolly said was due to repeated efforts to circumvent transparency and accountability measures expected of democratic government. 

Jolly said one of the factors the jury considered was how the city treated freedom of information requests with “extraneous amounts and high costs for some basic things that should probably be in accordance with the city’s basic policy on transparency and disclosure.”

The Narwhal told Jolly about recent freedom of information fees requested by North Bay — some of which were successfully appealed — and the contents of the emails released. “Politicians and democratic structures have a duty to inform the public of what’s going on, and I don’t think in this case, based on what I’ve seen, and in others, that the city council is meeting that threshold,” Jolly said. “I think ultimately that’s where journalism comes in and demands those kinds of answers on the public’s behalf.”

“There is a pattern of behavior here from the city,” Jolly said. “I think that really emphasizes and underscores the way they go about informing the public.”

The outside of the Industrial Plastics Canada factory in North Bay, Ont.
After Brennain Lloyd of the environmental group Northwatch toured the Industrial Plastics Canada factory, a production manager told the city the meeting was “a success” and that Lloyd and other advocates “offered their help addressing the public’s concerns.” Lloyd said the email doesn’t portray her feelings, and that she’s still waiting for information promised to her by the company. Photo: Vanessa Tignanelli / The Narwhal

Local environmentalist says she’s still waiting for information promised by Industrial Plastics Canada

Curtis Avery, environment manager for Nipissing First Nation, said the correspondences left him concerned. “They’ve sidetracked this so that the involvement of the community is minimal,” Avery said. “Obviously, they have done this strategically because of their own faults and failures in dealing with the PFAS issues already.”

“We’re not going to rely on the city,” Avery said. “We’re not going to rely on the company to be transparent and provide any sort of integrity. We’re going to take it on ourselves to start monitoring the environment.” He said Nipissing First Nation plans to continue its own extensive testing of waterways for forever chemicals, including the creeks behind Industrial Plastics Canada’s facility.

Vandermeer and another member of Trout Lake Conservation Association, along with Brennain Lloyd from the environmental advocacy group Northwatch, visited the factory after The Narwhal’s story. The next day, Industrial Plastics Canada’s production manager, Craig Rice, emailed the city that “the meeting was a success.”

“They were quoted saying they came in with a nine out [of] 10 concern level and left two out of 10 and offered their help addressing the public’s concerns,” Rice wrote. 

Lloyd told The Narwhal Rice’s email doesn’t portray how she felt after the meeting. She still has concerns about the company’s operations, including the permitting process for air emissions, as well as the lack of opportunity for public comment. 

Although Industrial Plastics Canada promised to provide this information, along with emissions data from Guarniflon’s operations in Italy, she says she has still not received it. “We will go back to the company and again, ask them to provide the information that they committed to providing in July 2023,” Lloyd told The Narwhal.

“Our error was that we relied on the system,” Lloyd said. “In retrospect, I regret that we were not more persistent in our requests to the company for the information that they had said that they would provide.”

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