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‘Good corporate neighbours’: Locals fear disruptions from giant VW plant in Ontario

Click to play video: 'What will Volkwagen’s new EV plant impact be on St. Thomas?'
What will Volkwagen’s new EV plant impact be on St. Thomas?
WATCH: What will Volkwagen’s new EV plant impact be on St. Thomas? – Apr 21, 2023

ST. THOMAS, ONTARIO — Jenna Tranter thought she had finally found rural tranquillity a decade ago when she bought a lush 25-acre farm where she could teach horseback riding, removed from the traffic and noise of a major city.

But she recently learned she’d be getting a new neighbour: Volkswagen, Europe’s largest carmaker, has announced plans to build a massive electric-vehicle battery manufacturing plant in St. Thomas, Ont., a block away from her home.

The German auto giant’s choice of St. Thomas as the site for its “gigafactory” was widely cheered — including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford — and is expected to create up to 3,000 direct jobs, as well as up to 30,000 spinoff jobs at companies supplying the plant.

But not everyone was thrilled.

“It is a very sad situation, and we are very angry and upset,” said Tranter, standing outside her red brick farm house in the municipality of Central Elgin, which borders St. Thomas and the proposed factory site.

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“I wanted my own farm and my own space (so) that I could do my own thing … never planned on having the largest EV plant in North America out of my front window.”

Volkswagen has said it will invest $7 billion in the project, while the Canadian government has pledged up to $13 billion in subsidies.

The government has hailed the investment as a vital step towards a cleaner economy, saying it will generate around $200 billion in value and transform St. Thomas and surrounding areas.

Click to play video: 'Is Canada’s support of Volkswagen’s EV battery plant investment worth it?'
Is Canada’s support of Volkswagen’s EV battery plant investment worth it?

But neighbours said their concerns about the proposed 1,500-acre site have not been addressed.

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Some voiced concerns about Volkswagen’s plans to manage chemical waste, limit noise pollution and traffic, as well as disruptions from the major infrastructure work needed to support the factory.

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“Nobody will tell us what these actual plans are and whether they impact my property,” Tranter said. “If they are going to widen this road, am I going to lose some of my land?”

Multiple residents said that several homeowners had already sold plots to make way for the industrial megasite. The Canadian Press visited several sites where homes had been bulldozed on land where the Volkswagen plant is slated to be built.

Tom Martin, whose family has owned 400 acres in the area going back six generations, said he understands the urgency for a cleaner economy, but he questioned the decision to build the plant on prime farmland.

“I am not against progress and electric vehicles are the thing that is going to be changing our lives,” said Martin, whose farm is expected to be the plant’s largest direct neighbour. “But it would be nice to not use the best ground dirt in southern Ontario.”

Martin said he worries that potential widening of the road bordering his farm could destroy a tree line that protects his land from the wind. He said he’s not yet had any communication from Volkswagen or municipal authorities about what to expect.

Diane Dubois, Martin’s wife, said she fears what the factory will mean for her family’s long-term future in Central Elgin.

“We are going to hang tight and see what happens because we love it here and we have lots of family history here, and we are just hoping that Volkswagen will be good corporate neighbours,” she said, sitting on a picnic bench next to her husband, with a vast stretch of green grass behind them.

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Another source of controversy is what some in Central Elgin have branded the “annexation.”

Just 11 days before Volkswagen announced it had chosen St. Thomas, the province passed legislation redrawing the municipal boundary so that the plant’s entire site would be located in St. Thomas alone.

The province said it redrew the map to help avoid bureaucratic duplication during the building process.

The rapid legislative move, which sparked curiosity before its motive was clear, was a “serious concern,” said Central Elgin resident Nicole Craven.

“We are very excited that there is going to be an upswing in employment and opportunities for the region,” she said, but added: “We are more concerned with how the things went about and don’t feel that there was that transparency needed for the process.”

Click to play video: 'Ottawa invests $13 billion in subsidies to attract VW plant.'
Ottawa invests $13 billion in subsidies to attract VW plant.

St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston downplayed concerns about the boundary adjustment.

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“You can find someone who would find something wrong with a sunny day,” he said. “This is a really huge benefit to all of the people of southern Ontario.”

Preston, whose desk features a blue plastic sample of Volkswagen’s EV battery, said the automaker chose the area partly because of its “good hard-working workforce.”

St. Thomas has a history of pioneering as an industrial hub, the mayor said.

It connected Ontario to major North American cities like New York and Chicago by railway in the 1800s, attracted automotive manufacturers in the 1900s and has now successfully won the competition to host the plant producing batteries for electric vehicles in the 21st century, Preston said.

As for the size of plant, Preston said it was cause of celebration, not concern.

“It will be somewhat difficult to walk from one end to the other,” he said. “That is how big this facility is and a lot of production coming out of it worldwide for Volkswagen.”

PowerCo SE, the Volkswagen subsidiary that manages the automaker’s battery factories, said last month that it was committed to being “a reliable partner for the people in St. Thomas and Ontario.”

Rodger Moran, a newcomer to St. Thomas, said the Volkswagen news was “great.”

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“This is really good opportunity for a lot of folks … good paying jobs which (are) desperately needed around here.”

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