“I still have a grin on my face,” says Liberal MPP Kevin Flynn of the McGuinty government’s decision last week to cancel a $1.2-billion power plant in Oakville.
For every grin the decision garnered, there was a skeptical grimace, as critics accused the government of risking a huge financial penalty to engage in early electioneering in a riding that has tended Tory in the past.
But for those activist Oakville residents no longer worried about looming smokestacks, the decision was less about politics at its worst and more about democracy at work. From their point of view, the government was buying their arguments, not votes.
In September of 2009 the Ontario Power Authority – charged by Premier Dalton McGuinty with ensuring a reliable electricity supply – awarded a contract to TransCanada to build a 900-megawatt, gas-fired generating station beside the Ford Motor Co. plant in Oakville.
The problem was, Ford would not be the only neighbour. A school and houses sat within 400 metres of what was to be the third-largest gas-fired plant in the country.
Within two weeks, eight Oakville residents had founded the Citizens For Clean Air (C4CA) and initiated a year-long campaign that took them through the streets and into Queen’s Park.
C4CA co-founder Susan Hyatt says the community response was swift.
“It sounds corny, but Oakville is a town where we knock on each other’s doors. We talk to each other in the streets, parks and shops.”
Only days after C4CA formed, an Ontario Municipal Board hearing had to be delayed because too many residents showed up to support the municipal government as it defended a planning by-law that was hostile to the plant.
The groundswell continued until C4CA counted 2,000 members and an e-mail reach of 10,000 people. Businesses were soon sporting anti-power-plant banners and 150 “street captains” made rounds knocking on doors in neighbourhoods festooned with 5,000 protest lawn signs. The tactics would eventually include a petition from 145 area medical doctors, two-page ads in a local paper, a Queen’s Park rally of more than a thousand and a speaking engagement by anti-pollution activist Erin Brockovich.
With directors devoting up to 30 unpaid hours a week, the strategy shifted from public awareness to what Mr. Flynn considers to be the real strength of the campaign: quiet but concerted citizen lobbying.
“Those people who thought they could scream the plant away were mitigated from within,” he says. “When you keep the heat down, you let other people make the right decisions.”
The task of crafting what Mr. Flynn calls “credible, reasoned arguments against the plant,” called on the strengths of a citizen talent pool that ran deep with expertise in government, law, communications and management.
“Our volunteers spent countless hours researching issues,” says Lawrence Zimmering, a founder of both C4CA and the Weather Network.
They developed two arguments: The location was not suitable and the plant was not necessary.
From a suitability point of view, C4CA used the government’s own data to show that local air was already overstressed with pollutants and that the rate of youth asthma was higher than anywhere else in the province. Their contention that any plant would have to be at least 1,500 metres away from residences for the pollution to drop to “background” levels is now part of Mr. Flynn’s private member’s bill to establish setback standards for power plants.
On the question of necessity, C4CA took it upon themselves to update Ontario’s Long Term Energy Plan.
By pointing to a drop in demand due to conservation and a recession, the group’s technical non-experts questioned the Ontario Power Authority’s projection that the southwestern GTA is at risk of draining supplies before the end of the decade.
“No one knew what a megawatt was before,” says Mr. Zimmering. “Now the whole town can talk about dispersion, capacity, demand and so forth.”
If residents were learning, they got the impression the politicians were also.
“We had a contact grid of people in government who would listen to us,” says Ms. Hyatt. “Once we began to explain our positions, they listened, and even asked us questions. That’s what politicians are supposed to do.”
Another group paying attention was the Concerned Citizens of King Township (CCKT), a group that formed to oppose the imminent construction of a 400-megawatt, gas-fired power plant on the edge of the Holland Marsh in the Greenbelt south of Barrie.
“The Oakville decision has fanned the embers here,” says CCKT board member Debbie Schaeffer in describing opposition to the plant that the government says must still go ahead to address what is a more pressing energy crunch in sprawling, and Tory-held, York-Simcoe riding.
Ms. Schaefer, a retired businesswoman, observes that the King Township campaign is lacking some of the organizational force exerted in Oakville.
“We don’t have the same deep pockets as in Oakville,” she says. “A large number of us are farmers and it’s tough for them to make a priority of this instead of going out into the fields.”
When Ms. Schaefer mentions deep pockets she may be referring to the likes of C4CA chair Frank Clegg. The former president of Microsoft Canada sold his previous Oakville residence for $29-million five years ago, but he is not out of place in what is one of Canada’s most affluent cities, where many houses are of a size that generates large electricity bills.
Ms. Hyatt says a final tally of how much money C4CA raised from supporters will not be available until a third-party audit is completed at the end of the month, though she notes there were significant expenses along the way, with the hiring of lawyers, the well-known Ketchum public relations firm and the Hollywood-certified Erin Brockovich.
Ruling could give mayor an election boost
The Ontario government’s decision to cancel the power plant could be a boost to Oakville Mayor Rob Burton as he heads into a third election showdown with former mayor Ann Mulvale (Ms. Mulvale won by 28 votes in 2003, Mr. Burton won in 2006).
Many close to the fight credit Mr. Burton with playing a leading role in convincing the province to pull the plug. In March 2009, , town council passed an interim control by-law intended to buy Oakville time before any power plant could be built, and it did.
In a less direct way, the success of the popular uprising could swing some emotional support toward the environmentally minded Mr. Burton. He has supported increased green space and infrastructure spending, with the caveat that the developers should shoulder more of the cost. Ms. Mulvale is running on a platform more focused on fiscal restraint.
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