Smoke, odours at Breslau’s Safety-Kleen plant prompt complaints, feedback

Last updated on Sep 14, 23

Posted on Sep 14, 23

5 min read

Following smoke sightings and odour complaints from residents last month, Safety-Kleen staff are finishing up their bi-annual maintenance shutdown of the facility, and say everything is running business as usual.

Two weeks ago residents saw black smoke coming from the Safety-Kleen facility in Breslau, but this was nothing out of the ordinary, says the company’s management.

“On the Monday of the original incident, we had a power outage. We had a car accident out on Shantz Station Road, which disrupted the power to Maryhill and Breslau, which was given an extended downtime for [Safety Kleen]. So when they were restarting back up the process, that’s when the black smoke came out,” said Dennis Aldous, fire chief for Woolwich Township.

Last week, Woolwich Township staff put out notifications saying that Safety-Kleen staff started their bi-annual maintenance on September 4, and that the process would go on until today (Thursday).

“What they do is they shut their entire operation down and then they do preventative maintenance on the system, making sure that all the safety stuff is calibrated and then check whatever else they discover during the time,” said Aldous.

Safety-Kleen is a used oil refinery located at 300 Woolwich St. S. in Breslau.

Scott Miller, the senior vice president of refinery operations for the company, says that the goal is for the Breslau facility to be off the radar and for residents to notice it as little as possible. The bi-annual maintenance takes place in the spring and fall each year.

“It usually takes about 10 days. All refineries do this. It’s an outage – it’s called a turnaround – and that’s when they can clean out, do equipment cleaning, they can do maintenance, they can do inspections and prepare the refinery to run through the winter.”

He says residents shouldn’t notice anything unusual before, during or after this process. To reduce any odour, staff at the facility circulate chemicals known as scavengers that react with sulfur compounds to neutralize the odours, before beginning the maintenance.

Residents have complained about smells coming from the facility over social media.

“I am probably five kilometres east and one kilometre south of this ‘refinery,’ said one Reddit user by the name Street-Measurement-7. “For 26 years prior, I don’t ever recall smelling this stink. But this summer, it’s been almost ever-present.”

Lindsay Jones Murray commented on a photo showing the black smoke on a Facebook group. “I think it is part of their annual shut down/deep clean. I’m remembering this happening before and that was the explanation. A little warning would be nice though.”

Miller says staff take great pains to minimize odours during the maintenance shutdown, particularly by circulating odour-reducing chemicals.

“We spend several days doing that actually, which, you know, costs us a lot of money and downtime, but it’s important to us, so we do spend the time to do it,” he said. “It’s kind of like, if you want to open your gas tank and put gas in your car, but you don’t want to smell gas. It’s a very difficult thing to solve. It’s petroleum and it has an odour. But we really do put a lot of effort and there’s a lot of sensitivity around odours, for sure.”

In October 2019, staff at Safety-Kleen were performing maintenance work during a shutdown. During this time, there was an unexpected  build-up of pressure in the vacuum distillation and hydrotreater units, and emissions were released, mostly reduced sulfur compounds according to the province, to relieve pressure.

This resulted in a rotten egg smell spreading across neighbourhoods. There were about 60 complaints from residents, and some reported headaches, nausea, and throat and nose irritation.

This incident resulted in Safety-Kleen being convicted of one violation under the Environmental Protection Act, a $140,000 fine, and a victim fine surcharge of $35,000.

“Every one of these [incidents] has an investigation with a list of action items and corrective actions that we take and follow up on to make sure they were done, to make sure that that particular item does not happen again,” said Miller

He noted development in the areas means the company now has to contend with neighbours blocks away who weren’t there before.

“We want to be good community citizens. We’ve been there a long time, we’ve been doing this a long time. We’re really not doing anything different. I think if you’ve ever seen how many people have moved in, literally blocks away from where there used to be nobody, many years ago when the place was built, it’s making it a lot more difficult to contain what would be normal odors, so we’re doing the best we can.”

Emergency planning aspect

The township has an emergency siren located in Breslau. In the case of an emergency at Safety-Kleen, Woolwich has some protocols in place.

“We do have a program in Breslau, Elmira, and St. Jacobs that have sirens, and they are specific to chemical releases,” said Avril Tanner, the emergency management coordinator at the Township of Woolwich. “We have one in Breslau and it would be set off if it was deemed at site that there was an issue of safety for residents. We expect that when our residents hear that siren, they immediately go indoors, and they follow the shelter-in-place program that we have, which is basically closing your windows and doors.”

Tanner says the sirens would be followed with information from the Alert Waterloo Region system with further instructions.

“[The system]  would provide our residents with information on why the sirens are going off and what to do. In the case of a chemical emergency, we would be giving them information that they might need in particular for that actual emergency, that they just need to follow. Then we would keep them informed through an additional webpage that we would notify them of in that Alert Waterloo Region system message.”

Besides issues with the chemical plants, the siren system could also be used for something like a fuel leak resulting from an accident, she said.

Tanner says next week the township and the CAER group – Community Awareness and Emergency Response – is planning a test-run of the sirens in all three towns on September 20 and 21, followed by a test-run of the Alert Waterloo Region system.

“The intent of this test is that we can now build upon that. Since we haven’t actually done a test in a while, we want to see what do our residents actually know right now. There might be some new ones and they might not know about it. What do our schools and our businesses know? And we’re asking people to complete a survey online as a part of that. That will help build a case for creating basically a public education campaign moving forward.”

CAER is a working group made of representatives from Woolwich, the chemical businesses located in the township, and emergency personnel to share information to come up with the best response in case there was an actual emergency. There’s also a public education component.

People can register for the Alert Waterloo Region system, including multiple phone numbers and multiple addresses of where they and their family members may be during the day.

“You can register your child’s school address, your office address, your home,” she explained.

The system has multiple options for the best way to receive information, including email, text message and landline, for example. More information on Alert Waterloo Region can be found at

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