Industrial minerals producers often fly beneath our collective radar. Not so in Eastern Ontario. For three years, the operations of one of them, OMYA CANADA INC., has set landowners and environmentalists against the Swiss-owned calcium carbonate producer and the provincial government.
The water problem first surfaced in February 2000 when OMYA applied to the Ministry of the Environment to increase its consumption from the picturesque Tay River near Perth to 4,500 m3/day. Opponents bombarded the Ministry with letters. A permit was granted with an initial limit of 1,500 m3/day for three years and 4,500 m3/day beginning in 2004. The decision was appealed to the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT). In February 2002, the Tribunal decided that the limit should remain at 1,500 m3/day for six years with no increase allowed. The next month, OMYA appealed directly to the Environment Minister.
The situation came to a head last Friday when Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell overruled the province’s ERT and granted the company a licence to triple its water removal. His decision means OMYA can raise its intake to 4,500 m3/day.
I have been following the uproar for two reasons. One, a thriving mine provides valuable jobs in an otherwise rural area. Two, the environmental review process appears to have been subverted.
As an employer, OMYA has a credible track record. It acquired the former Steep Rock Resources properties in 1988, and made a long-term capital commitment to upgrade and expand the facilities. It earned both its ISO 9001:2000 and ISO 14000:1996 certificates. The plant meets environmental regulations for noise, air and effluent.
The company operates an open pit mine at Tatlock and a mill in Perth. The calcium carbonate it produces is slurried and either railed or trucked to customers. It is used in the manufacture of paper, paints, plastic, food and pharmaceuticals and a variety of other industries. OMYA has about 100 employees of its own and provides another 150 jobs for local trucking and mining contractors. It is providing a reliable source of income for them and pumping about $20 million annually into the local economy.
Little has been said about the fact that water for the plant now comes from seven deep wells. They tap into the groundwater and are licensed to pump up to 800 L/min. The wells will be reduced to standby status. The net effect on the river, given that the underground aquifer is not being depleted, may be close to zero. Time will tell.
As for the Environmental Review Tribunal, OMYA president Olivier Chatillon says, "We’re caught in the middle of a political game."
The company has always been willing to share the results of its own, federal, provincial, and independent studies of water use. None of them questioned the sustainability of the Tay River and nearby Bob’s Lake water supplies. But the Environmental Review Tribunal, made up of a single political appointee, refused to allow submission of those reports.
Before making his decision, Stockwell did study the report, and he was able to consider both sides of the argument, Chatillon says. Chatillon would now like to put the episode behind him and get on with being a valued part of the community.
And despite scoring a victory, OMYA is going to be made to look like a loser in the local daily press.