On Monday, Mar. 8, 2021, residents in Kingston’s west end – particularly in the Cataraqui Woods area – awoke to a strange smell that both worried and alarmed them.
Described by area residents as “gag-inducing,” the smell was not something they’d experienced before, and prompted a number of residents to call either Kingston Fire and Rescue, the City of Kingston, or Utilities Kingston, thinking that the odour was possibly dangerous. On that morning, Kingston Fire and Rescue (KFR) responded to calls in Cataraqui Woods concerning the smell.
“When KFR arrived on-scene, crews were able to determine the reported odours were not noxious, and most likely the result of industrial activity happening in the area,” Kingston Fire and Rescue said in an email to Kingstonist regarding the smell and subsequent emergency response. Kingston Fire and Rescue redirected the inquiry to Canada Royal Milk, also known as Feihe International, the baby formula processing plant at 1680 Venture Drive.
Carey Bidtnes, Human Resources Manager for Canada Royal Milk, explained that the source of the smell all came down to equipment malfunctions that began the week before.
The factory has a wastewater pre-treatment plan on site, which pre-treats their wastewater prior to returning it to the City’s sanitary sewer system, Bidtnes said.
“When the milk comes in, we pasteurize it, and we separate it, so the cream is separated off, and then we normally sell the cream. And then the remaining milk goes through our process. So at the end of everything, because we’re taking moisture out (because our finished products (are) powder), our wastewater from the milk, biological solids, like proteins and things, we need to take that out, before it goes into the City system,” she explained.
Bidtnes said that, in essence what happens is all of the solids are drawn out of the waste water and become a sludge. Royal Milk Canada then hires a company to come and take the sludge, and the remaining water is returned to the City’s sanitary sewer system for collection and treatment.
At least, that’s what normally happens. However, beginning last week, the Canada Royal Milk plant experienced equipment malfunctions. The first took place on Wednesday, Mar. 3, and the second took place on Sunday, Mar. 7, 2021, Bidtnes said.
“What happened last week is there were a couple of upsets to the microbiome in the wastewater treatment plants. So the things that process the wastewater. And so what happened is the liquid waste that went to the wastewater treatment plant had a higher protein concentration than it should have, or that it normally would have. So that put everything out of balance,” she explained. “Basically, what happens when it’s out of balance, the microbiome isn’t processing things as quickly as it should.”
Bidtnes said this malfunctioning was a “very rare occurrence,” and not something people living in the area need to be prepared for regularly.
“This is not something that would be frequent, and we’ve been able to get to the root cause of that equipment malfunction, and it’s been repaired,” Bidtnes said, noting that the engineers at Canada Royal Milk reviewed the entire system’s functioning.
“And then we’ve put in some additional preventative protocols so it doesn’t happen again.”
Bidtnes said there was never any sort of risk to public health as a result of the issues or the smell. She noted that Canada Royal Milk wants to be “a good neighbour,” but said that the company’s plans to have open tours of the facility when it began full operations in October 2020 were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the smell still lingers, Bidtnes said that she expects it to dissipate over the coming day or two. She also said that Canada Royal Milk wants to ensure transparency and communication with local residents in the future, should any such issues arise again.
“If and when these malfunctions happen, we’re going to do a better job of communicating it to the neighborhood… So that no one’s concerned that it’s something dangerous,” she said.