Omya, Critics Deadlock on Expansion Plans
04/22/02 12:00AM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) The world's largest producer of calcium carbonate has its North American headquarters in the small Vermont town of Proctor. Omya Incorporated is an industrial giant. It makes crushed calcium carbonate from marble. The product is used in everything from chewing gum, to paint, to glossy paper. The company operates in 30 countries and it would like to expand here in Vermont.
But as VPR's John Dillon reports, the expansion plans have run into opposition in Rutland County.
(Dillon) The high tech Omya plant in Florence, Vermont, north of Rutland is nothing more than a giant rock crusher. It pulverizes one million tons of rock a year into microscopic dust. And it's loud.
(Sound of Omya plant operations.)
(Dillon) Steve Thompson, the manager of Omya's Florence operation, shows where the rock is mixed with water so it can be moved around the plant.
(Thompson) "Basically the rock comes in, it's 12 inches or smaller it comes in to the front end of the cascade mill. We add water and rock there, and then that's where the grinding starts." (Sound of machinery.)
(Dillon) You see massive machines at Omya's Verpol plant in Florence. Overhead cranes are strong enough to carry 50 tons of heavy equipment. A power plant on the site cranks out 8 megawatts of electricity.
What you don't see are people. That's because just two men in a computerized control room can run the equipment for this massive rock crushing operation. More people work in the lab, where they check the calcium carbonate powder for purity and for signs of bacteria. The microscopic bugs, Thompson says, lower quality. Omya workers treat the product with chemical biocides, including chlorine bleach, to stop bacteria growth.
(Thompson) "Then what we do with the finished product tanks, we add preservatives into the tanks, and then we add preservatives into the rail cars just before shipment."
(Dillon) Omya's rock dust is now ready to be shipped as a commodity product. The marble that was formed 300 million years ago is used in toothpaste, for paper making, in plastics, even in high-tech ceramics for car engines.
Some of the calcium carbonate is loaded onto rail cars in liquid form and hauled out of state. Omya is the largest user of Vermont's railroads.
(Thompson) "We have two rail scales and two truck scales where we can load wet and dry cars."
(Dillon) But before the rock reaches this plant, it must be blasted out of the ground. Some of the rock comes from right down the road, at the Hogback quarry in Pittsford. A giant hole is carved from the grayish-white marble. The pool of water at the bottom is a stunning Mediterranean blue.
(Thompson) "We think this quarry here would be pretty much representative of what an open quarry would look like in the Danby four-corners region."
(Dillon) But the problem for Omya is that the rock here in Pittsford isn't as pure white as the company wants. The good stuff comes from an Omya quarry in Middlebury. And more of the really prized stone lies close to the surface in Danby, about 23 miles south of Florence.
(Thompson) "It's a very pure material... The core drills look like it's a very pristine marble and something that could be very useful for us."
(Dillon) In Danby, a rugged, undeveloped mountain caps one side of a scenic valley. There is no quarry. Annette Smith can step outside her cabin door and sees where Omya wants to blast and drill:
(Smith) "Well right over there, just over my house, that mountain there, you can see Omya's proposed mine site is about a mile away."
(Dillon) Smith is an environmental activist who works literally to defend her backyard. Several years ago, Smith fought and defeated a proposed gas pipeline that also was planned to cut through her part of Danby. Now she heads an organization called Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
VCE was founded in 1999 and says it has about 200 supporters and members. Omya calls Smith an obstructionist, while her supporters say she's an effective grass roots activist.
Smith questions how Omya could safely haul the tons of rock over the narrow and steep roads that lead to the valley from Route 7. But she says the big issue is water. She turns a spigot in her cabin and the cool spring water gushes from the tap. Smith says Omya's proposed quarry could damage the numerous springs that flow out of the marble bedrock:
(Smith) "In the town history of Danby, Danby is called the most watered town in the state. I don't know if that's true but it is true that everyone around here historically has relied on springs. And there's just tremendous amount of water flowing out of the very mountain that Omya proposes to dig into. So we're looking at a 50 to 100 year proposal of de-watering the valley."
(Dillon) Omya disclosed its plans for Danby in January 2000. The company has not yet filed for an Act 250 development permit. It's looking at transportation issues and is testing the ground water around its proposed site. Omya says it can get up to 300-thousand tons of rock a year from Danby, for 50 years.
Smith and Vermonters for a Clean Environment are gearing up for the mother of all Act 250 cases:
(Smith) "Noise, dust, air pollution. Every single issue that gets dealt with in Act 250 is a major issue here."
(Dillon) Act 250 also covers the aesthetic impacts of development. In her home office, Smith displays a stunning photograph of Danby mountain in full fall color. She also shuffles through a collection of state tourist publications that show the same scenic view:
(Smith) "It's a classic view of Vermont that has economic value to the state and will not have any economic value at all if Omya gets want they want here. What they want to do here is, as far as we're all concerned, crazy. It just doesn't make any sense at all."
(Dillon) What Smith calls crazy, Jim Reddy calls sound economic development. Reddy is the president of Omya's North American operations. In Vermont, the company employs about 400 people.
Reddy works in a corner office in a marble building in Proctor. The building used to the headquarters of the Vermont Marble Company, which Omya bought 25 years ago.
Reddy says he's loves to backpack and hike in the woods. He says he's worked closely with environmentalists before when he ran an Omya plant in California. But he says Smith's group will not negotiate.
(Reddy) "What surprised me here was the fact that Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which is the main group that seems to be opposed to us, is simply opposed to us. They do not act in any way like ¿ like the more national environmental groups that I've dealt with in the past seemed to act.
(Dillon) Smith says she's willing to talk. But she'll never accept an Omya quarry in the valley. This is the impasse between Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Omya:
(Smith) "Not on this mountain. If they can do something down on Route 7, fine. They already have the largest underground marble quarry in Vermont¿. There's plenty of marble there. If they can get it out of there¿fine."
(Dillon) Reddy says Omya's growth in Vermont is constrained by restrictions on its truck traffic and the opposition to its new quarry:
(Reddy) "The quarry is a very large, excellent reserve. There are more gold mines in North America than there are calcium carbonate mines of high quality that are used for the products we make. This quality of calcium carbonate is extremely rare. That is a very important deposit and if we are to continue growing in this state it's a key part of the process. It's very important to us."
(Dillon) According to Reddy, Omya doesn't have a time frame yet for its Danby project. It's waiting for the results of its ground water tests and other studies. He says the company can build the Danby quarry and not harm the environment or affect the tourism economy:
(Reddy) "It's a concern we're working to address. We have a quarry in Middlebury. There's a college in Middlebury. There's a lot of tourism in Middlebury and our quarry hasn't hurt the college or tourism in the least. We are working hard on the Danby operation to see what we can do to minimize the legitimate concerns of the people in the community, so that we will not harm the aesthetics or the tourism in the Danby area."
(Dillon) In the battle between Omya and Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Omya may be winning so far. It's successfully argued against the group in a Water Resources Board case. The environmentalists had challenged a new water pollution permit that allows the company to use new biocides without prior state approval. Omya's lawyer said the group didn't have the legal right to appeal, and the Board agreed. Smith has asked the Board to reconsider its decision
For his part, Reddy says he'd like to work with Smith to break the deadlock over the Danby project. But Smith says her position is clear. Omya should not put a quarry in the mountain that towers over the valley.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon in Danby.
(Host) The production engineer for our story was Chris Albertine.