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News | OMYA neighbors make one last stand

By Carrie Chandler | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted April 12, 2007

FLORENCE — Many people in Vermont may have heard of OMYA, the world’s leading producer of calcium carbonate, but might not know what it does.

But a few citizens in Florence, a village of Pittsford, are all too familiar with the company.

In response to an Act 250 process that the Florence plant was undergoing in order to build a 30-acre, 80-foot high waste pit on top of their estimated 3 million tons of waste stored in old, unlined quarries, the citizen’s group Residents Concerned about OMYA (RCO), formed in 2002. In 2004, they filed a lawsuit to make sure that OMYA’s waste is regulated by the state in order to protect their drinking water from possible pollution.

“The state should be holding them accountable, and they don’t care. Nobody follows up. Our lawsuit is to demonstrate that there are a lot of chemicals in these materials that continue to be washed out. Part of their [OMYA’s] argument has always been that everything goes to the east. And our argument is how could it not go west and go downhill? That seems to be the natural flow of pressure which heads right to the water supply for the town of Florence,” said Bob DeMarco, a member of RCO.

The waste, or tailings, created from the processing of marble was classified as “earth materials” when OMYA first opened in 1979. In 2002, OMYA had filled up the old quarries that they were using as waste storage, and applied for an Act 250 permit to build and use a new waste pit on top of the old quarries.

During the Act 250 process, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeff Wennberg recalled that “the committee asked the state’s solid waste program whether a solid waste permit was required” due to the chemicals that were added to the marble slurry during processing. While OMYA thought that the waste was exempt, due to the earth materials clause, “I came to the conclusion that a permit was required in mid-2003,” said Wennberg.

“Here are 100,000 to 150,000 tons a year they are dumping,” said Bev Peterson, an RCO member. “That’s their waste. And one-half percent of that waste are chemicals, that’s 22 pounds of chemical per square foot.”

Those chemicals include known biocides (or pesticides) such as tall oil hydroxyethyl imidazoline and amines. Without knowing where all of those chemicals are going while sitting in unlined quarries, Peterson noted, “this is why we’re concerned about water.”

That concern about water prompted RCO to file a federal lawsuit through Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic in 2005. “There are two legal claims in this lawsuit,” said David Mears, assistant director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Clinic and lead attorney for the case. “An open dumping claim and an imminent and substantial endangerment claim.” After OMYA’s waste was defined as solid waste, “the plant was dumping solid waste without a permit. The court just has to look at the Vermont statute,” he added.

Substantial endangerment is a bit harder to prove. “If there are waste disposal actions that cause a threat to human health or the environment that has slipped through regulation,” this gives citizens a way to bring it into court, said Mears.

The claim comes under the jurisdiction of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is federal legislation passed in 1976 designed to protect the environment, including waterways, from solid waste contamination through spills or through groundwater contamination.

In response to the suit, “OMYA is working through the legal process” according to Christine Harris, a spokeswoman for OMYA Vermont. Both groups are engaged in discovery, uncovering research and information that pertains to the trial.

Most recently, RCO tested the water on OMYA’s site and found arsenic in the water and at least two of the wells are over what the EPA has set as the limit, claimed Mears.

The find was a boon for RCO. “This new information about the arsenic is going to let this lawsuit go back to court,” said DeMarco “It’s [been] in limbo until we come up with the evidence.”

“That was bad news. We would have rather found out that there wasn’t a case, but the experts said that there is no question that the arsenic came from the tailings,” said Mears.

Armed with this new information, RCO will continue building their case until June, and Mears expects that it will go to trial in the late summer or early fall.

OMYA’s reaction to the find, according to Harris, is that “arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s surface, including the state of Vermont. As with all environmental matters, OMYA takes the issue seriously and additional samples will be tested for a broad range of chemicals and metals, including arsenic.”

The citizens aren’t blaming OMYA for the waste issues. “This whole thing still boils down to the state and the town. The laws are already there. None of this should be taking place,” said Umbert Rosarto, another RCO member.

Mears agreed. “We are not supposed to use the public as guinea pigs; the laws were set up to require permits in advance to make sure that waste was monitored. OMYA could have done this from the beginning, and we wouldn’t have problems,” said Mears.

When OMYA opened its plant in Florence in 1979, well after Act 250 was adopted in 1970, the company complied with the Act 250 requirements for earth materials. Until they applied for a permit for the new waste disposal pit, they were following the guidelines outlined in their first permit. When their waste became classified as solid waste, everything changed.

To the residents, though, that doesn’t matter.

“The state should hold them accountable to the fact that they have introduced these things into their water on their site. It’s against the law. They have contaminated their groundwater on their site and that’s against the law. That’s what we need to focus on,” said DeMarco. “It doesn’t really matter if we are finding it down in our well. That’s really irrelevant.”

Asked what they want to get out of the lawsuit, DeMarco said he wants people to be accountable and responsible for the contamination.

“We want the checks and balances in place. We want the concerns of the local citizens addressed and understood,” DeMarco said.

No one calls for OMYA to shut down and move away. Instead, they have hope.

“I think that they’re realizing that they have to be better citizens,” said DeMarco. “I think that they are beginning to understand that they actually have to have a conversation with people.”

OMYA’s North American operations are headquartered in Proctor. In 2004, more than 300 Vermonters were employed by the company, and it paid $2.2 million in property taxes to the 25 towns in which it owns property. OMYA quarries Vermont white marble and grinds it into calcium carbonate for use in paper, paint, and plastics.

Currently the company is involved in a study, required by the Legislature in 2005, to discern the environmental and human health impacts of calcium carbonate mining. Recently, the company completed the first phase of the study in which existing data was reviewed. The next phase, in which data is gathered to fill in existing gaps in information, has already begun. A final report to the Legislature is due in January 2008.

Harris noted, “We have worked closely with the Agency of Natural Resources and believe that is very important to reaching a final outcome that will be agreeable to neighbors, regulators, and OMYA.”

Although the company is working to define and lessen its environmental impacts, the members of RCO are not satisfied.

“Why should we not control the place we live in? That’s the question I have,” said DeMarco. “Why does OMYA control the place we live in? Why do they control our water, our air, our sound, our train tracks, the roads? I mean, they are in control of all of that stuff that is interacting with us all in various ways, all the time, every day of the week.”