Work has begun to cut down thousands of trees on the future site of a massive new factory for electric car batteries on the South Shore.
A growing citizen movement remains upset about the lack of transparency surrounding the construction, which is being made possible thanks to billions of dollars in government subsidies.
“We are very disappointed to see that things are starting on the site,” Simon Bouchard, a spokesperson for the Comité Action Citoyenne Northvolt, a coalition of concerned citizens posing questions about the project.
On Monday, Northvolt started cutting down over 10,000 trees on a massive vacant lot south of Montreal to make way for its new manufacturing facility. About 8,700 live trees will be felled, as well as around 5,400 dead ones. The Swedish company says along with a local organization, it will replant 24,000 trees in the area.
Northvolt got the green light from the province last Tuesday to begin the first phase of developing the sprawling tract of land. It obtained final authorization from the city of Saint-Basile-le-Grand on Friday.
“Yes, we’re building green cars, but if we have to destroy a significant part of the environments to do green cars, are we in the balance of things really doing something useful, or we just destroying something that we need to replace it by something we don’t really need?” wonders Bouchard.
Citizens with the Comité Action Citoyenne Northvolt hoped Saint-Basile would help hold up the project.
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“We’re not allowed to refuse a permit if the person or the entity who requested the permit meets all the requirements and regulations for it,” said Olivier Cameron-Chevrier, a Saint-Basile-le-Grand city councillor.
“We’re not in favour or against the project,” said Bouchard. “We just want things to be done as they should.”
Last September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it an “historic” moment when the company announced plans to build a $7-billion factory for electric vehicle batteries on the South Shore. Together, the federal and provincial governments are providing nearly $3 billion in subsidies.
Northvolt claims it will make the “greenest batteries in the world” in Quebec, and bring thousands of jobs.
Bouchard, however, feels citizen concerns are being ignored. His group is upset the government greenlit the project without a full independent assessment of its environmental impact.
“We know that this project partly escaped the BAPE because the regulation was changed a few weeks before the land was acquired by Northvolt,” he said, referring to the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, Quebec’s independent environmental assessment body.
Bouchard, who lives a kilometer away from the site, says citizen questions about the impact on the Richelieu River, noise and traffic among others have not been answered.
“Our voice is not really being heard, and if it is heard, people are not really caring about what we’re saying,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too late to do things the right way.”
He and other environmentalists hope Quebec will reverse course and activate a full environmental assessment, but the Environment Ministry says the construction of the battery factory does not call for one.
“In fact, the activities that will be implemented are either not covered by the Regulation on the evaluation and examination of environmental impacts (REEIE) or are located below the thresholds for compliance,” said Environment Ministry Spokesperson Ghizlane Behdaoui.
According to Bouchard, residents had been told there would be no work at night, but activists claimed videos they posted of equipment operating on site were filmed after 8:30 pm.
“The permit of the city allows us to cut, trees from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m,” said Northvolt North America spokesperson Emmanuelle Rouillard-Moreau.
Cameron-Chevrier said the company had initially told citizens work would stop at 5 p.m.
“The communications that were sent out, it said they would stop at 5 p.m,” he said. “The permit states they’re allowed to work until 9 at night, but work can’t be bothersome for the neighbours.“
Abandoned since 1999, the site was home to various industries over the past century. Bombs were made there during the Second World War. Nowadays, it’s home to the endangered spiny softshell turtle and the threatened least bittern.
Northvolt says it will not touch the areas where the creatures are most likely to be, and a biologist will supervise work. A creek will be left intact along with an important flood zone.
Bouchard questioned how a biologist could be on watch for endangered species in the dark of night, but Northvolt says strong lights are being used.
“We have lights on sight when we’re doing the work at night for safety issues, of course, but also to be able to identify species,” said Rouillard-Moreau.
Bouchard is inviting people to join the growing group of concerned citizens.
“This is a huge task of trying to make the government change its mind, so that that’s the message that I would have to people: reach out to us and come to help us,” he said.
Northvolt says it is open to answering any and all questions at a new email address, [email protected]. The company says residents will start seeing structures being erected this summer with the first batteries on the way in 2026.
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