Markets Keep Marble Industry Alive -- July 14, 1997
By BRUCE EDWARDS
Herald Staff PROCTOR - When marble was king more than 60 years ago, Vermont Marble Co. was the worlds largest supplier of the stone in the world. The companys marble was used in everything from the construction of such architectural masterpieces as the Jefferson Memorial and Supreme Court building to more somber monuments like the white marble head-stones that mark the final resting spot of thousands of veterans.
It was also a time when Vermont Marble was the engine of the Rutland County economy, employing more than 2,500 workers during its heyday. It operated quarries in West Rutland, Proctor, Rochester, Isle LaMotte, Danby, and in other states and in Canada.
But times, and the companys fortunes -changed.
Founded by Col. Redfield Proctor in 1870, the company never fully recovered from the aftermath of Depression and a bitter strike in the 1930s The availability of alternative and less expensive building materials also chipped away at
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market share, as did the elimination of protective tariffs that made imported marble more attractive.
A once thriving industry dominated by the likes of Vermont Marble and Georgia Marble fell on hard times. In 1976, a struggling Vermont Marble Co. was sold to Pluess-Staufer AG of Switzerland for a price reported in the $10 million range. Under its new owner, the marble company landed some major contracts like the Canary Wharf project in London. But that was not enough to sustain the company, which continued to downsize
The final blow was the recession of the early 1990s. Faced with declining orders and continued foreign competition, Pluess-Staufer in 1993 pulled the plug on the 123-year-old marble company.
The company, which had already sold its West Rutland quarries, closed its Proctor mill and sold its Rochester and Isle LaMotte quarries where green and black marble are quarried respectively. Its prized imperial Danby quarry, the source of pristine white marble, was leased to an Italian company for 99 years
So where did that leave the Swiss company which had spent millions to buy a struggling company only to sell it off in pieces ii years later? In the enviable position of having acquired a valuable source of marble quarries and reserves for its lucrative and expanding OMYA Inc. subsidiary
For while Pluess Staufer divested itself of Vermont Marbles building stone grade quarries it kept the companys White Pigment plant in Florence as well as the quarries and reserves that were suitable for the production of calcium carbonate - the powder or liquid filler material used in the manufacture off thousands of paint paper plastic, chemical and pharmaceutical products.
Today, the 113-year old privately held Swiss company is the world ~ leading producer of ground calcium carbonate with quarries and manufacturing plants in dozens of countries. (Precipitated carbonate is a synthetic variety that is sometimes preferred over its cousin in certain products.)
In Vermont, OMYAs main quarries in East Middlebury. Brandon and South Wallingford supply a continuing source of crushed marble for its state of the art Florence plant.
In fact, demand for the mineral has increased to the point where OMYA is planning to double production at its Middlebury quarry.
The existing quarry, which is approximately 2,800 feet long and 1,000 feet wide at its widest point, would increase by 25 percent -extending another 900 feet to the south according to a pending amendment to its existing Act 250 permit. (The quarry will also be expanded to the north under a previously approved permit.)
The increased production would double the number of round-trips to the Florence plant from 85 to 170 a day - a fact OMYA only disclosed when
questioned by Middlebury officials about the consequences of the quarry expansion.
Each truck making the 27-mile trip from Middlebury to Florence carries an estimated 22 tons of marble ore, according to a 1995-96 study that examined the feasibility of a rail transportation link as an option for OMYA.
Based on that figure, OMYA would have the capacity to increase production at its quarry off Foote Street from approximately 500,000 tons a year to 1,000,000 tons, if it doubled the number of daily truck loads.
Its that increased truck traffic that has raised concerns among Brandon residents.
The L.F. Canter Inc. marble hauling trucks are already a familiar sight as they pass through Brandon on their way to and from OMYAs Florence plant. But some residents and business owners in town are concerned that having twice as many OMYA trucks coming through town could have unwanted consequences ranging from increased traffic congestion and air pollution to ground vibrations that could damage the downtowns historic buildings.
With little in the way of manufacturing, Brandons economy is dependent on tourism. Establishments like the Brandon Inn and Lilac Inn are worried that the sight and sound of additional tractor-trailer trucks of marble rumbling through town will keep the tourists away. There are safety issues as well. Area residents have expressed concern that allowing OMYA to double its truck traffic could exacerbate conditions. along Route 7. Although Carter has an exemplary safety record, the busy two-lane highway has been the scene of a number of fatal accidents over the years.
As an alternative, talk of a rail spur or combination truck bypass and rail link between the quarry and OMYAs Florence plant has surfaced again.
For its part, the company - which has a reputation for keeping a low profile - had little to say when asked about the project and the concerns over truck traffic.
We think our amended (Act 250) permit speaks for itself," said John Mitchell, president of Pluess-Staufer Industries in Proctor
Brandon Town Manager Arthur Sanborn said the town will be seeking solutions to mitigate OMYAs impact on the town. At the same time, however, Sanborn said hes not sure the town has any right to limit 0MYAs use of a federal highway.
"Im not sure we have a right to rule that out, Sanborn said, adding that he didnt think it was fair to hold OMYA to a higher standard.
While there is no doubt truck traffic is a problem along Route 7, he said, OMYA is only a part of a larger problem that needs to be addressed.
Middlebury officials have given their blessings to the project. Middlebury Planner Fred S. Dunnington said the Planning Commission and the Select Board were satisfied with OMYAs proposal.
In fact, for Middlebury, the increased truck traffic will have less of an impact on neighboring homes. Thats because OMYA is proposing to build a 6,500 -foot road that will bypass then present access along Foote Street to Route 7. According to OMYAs Act 250 application, the new 30-foot wide paved access road would be built directly south from the quarry, along a right-of-way across Foster Brothers farm. The road will then turn west and cross Lower Foote Street onto OMYAs property and proceed in a southwesterly direction, intersecting Route 7 between Standard Register and Foster Motors.
The company noted in its application that the proposed road "has been planned carefully to minimize loss of existing agricultural land ... Plans also call for reducing any dust problem by building a wash rack that would water down each outgoing truck load.
Included in the application are plans to continue reclamation of property that bad been previously quarried. Once completed, the company says that 24 additional acres of productive farmland will have been improved or created
In addition, the company is seeking approval to extend its existing stock-pile area 300 feet to the south. The area is used to stockpile and sort marble ore according to size and grade.
While Middlebury and Brandon may be at odds over the project, Dunnington said he empathizes with his neighbors to the south.
"I dont want to take anything away from Brandon because I understand where theyre coming from," he said.
Dunnington added that he thinks OMYA might be amenable to a rail spur if it was economical. In the past that hasnt been the case, but he said that situation may have changed.
Since OMYA is proposing to double its production, he said that could make a rail spur feasible. He also suggested that the state, which has supported improved passenger and freight rail improvements in the past, might help subsidize construction of the spur
Based on the 1995-96 state Agency of Transportation study Dunnington said that the 3.2-mile rail link would cost $17 million. A major chunk of the cost would involve construction of a Route 7 underpass and a bridge over Otter Creek that would connect with the existing Vermont Railway line to the west that runs parallel to Route
The study found that at the current output of 500,000 tons a year, it costs OMYA an estimated $1.6 million a year in operating expenses to truck marble ore from its quarry to the Florence plant. Under that same scenario, shipping by rail would cost an estimated $1.3 million.
The problem, Dunnington said, is that when the cost of building the spur is figured in that would up OMYAs rail costs to between $2.4 and $4.2 million ii year
The study carried out by R. L. Banks & Associates of Washington, D.C., came up with several options that included a combination rail/truck alternative.
Crew Heimer of R.L. Banks said that even if OMYA were to double its output, a rail-only option would probably not be an economically viable option for the company.
And Heimer said while there are cost issues involving a rail spur across Route7 and the Otter Creek, OMYA has its own cost issues. Although OMYA ships much of its finished product by rail, all the raw material that is processed is trucked to the plant.
He said there would be a significant cost to convert the plant's unloading facility from truck to rail. Of the $17 million cost, Heimer said 0MYA would have to shell out $4.3 million to convert its facility for rail delivery
He said, however if OMYA were to double its production to a million tons a year, a truck/rail option might be a feasible alternative, if a suitable rail siding can be found in Middlebury.
Under that scenario, marble ore would be hauled by truck from the quarry to a rail siding on the north side of Middlebury where the ore would be loaded onto rail cars and shipped to the Florence plant.
The major cost would be construction of a $7.5 million road that would bypass
the downtown from the quarry to the rail siding. Again, based on the 5OO,OOO-ton figure, OMYAs annual transportation costs (including operating expenses and capital costs) would range between $2.1 and $2.9 million, compared to $1.7 and $1.8 million for trucking alone.
"My guess is if you double the tonnage then the truck-to-rail alternative becomes possible from a straight OMYA point of view of just dollars out," Heimer said.
Any increased transportation costs are likely to be evaluated very carefully by OMYA. According to Industrial Minerals magazine, transportation costs are among the most important factors in the viability and competitiveness of a GCC product."
But he also pointed out that there are other factors that should be considered as well.
"If you factor in the increased cost of the road maintenance to the federal, the state and the townships, then...it's probably more economical to put in rail."
Rail is certainly an option that Brandon would embrace. "Any time you can divert traffic around the town is preferable," Sanborn said.
Secretary of Transportation Glenn Gershaneck said cost is only one obstacle to building the spur. In addition to the question of money, Gershaneck said there "is a fairly significant wet land issue."
But he also acknowledged that for OMYA to double its truck traffic presents problems as well.
"The question of whether it's acceptable or whether it's not acceptable depends on a lot of things - when the trucks are moving through, what traffic congestion is like at that time, what the capacity of the road is," he said, adding that Route 7 is already "a pretty stressed road."
Noting that OMYA is already the biggest rail freight customer in the state, Gershaneck said that despite the obstacles a rail link is the preferable alternative.
"Would we be interested in talking with OMYA about seeing if there is a way to jointly handle this?," he asked. "You bet."
He also said the state might be willing to tap into a newly created $4.5 million infrastructure loan bank that is being funded with federal dollars.
Whether by truck or by rail, OMYAs plans to double production bear out reports of an escalating demand for calcium carbonate.
A February 1995 article in Industrial Minerals magazine said that there had been a major upswing in demand following the last recession.
Considered the most widely used mineral in the world, calcium carbonate consumption in the U.S. alone exceeds 50 million tons a year, with ground calcium carbonate accounting for somewhere between 3.5 million and 5 million tons in the U.S. and Canada. Prices for the finished product range from about $20 a ton for coarse material to a high of more than $300 a ton for ultra-fine coated material.
The article noted that following supply shortages in 1994, most of North America's calcium carbonate producers have completed or are planning expansions that will increase capacity up to 50 percent to meet current and future demand which is expected to grow 4to 6.5 percent a year. Growth in the paper sector alone for ground calcium carbonate is expected to increase l5 percent a year.
According to the London-based magazine, the 10 major ground calcium carbonate producers in North America account for more than two-thirds of all production. Among that number were three Pluess-Staufer companies:
OMYA Inc. (Vt.), Pluess-Staufer of California, and Steep Rock Resources (Canada). Other major producers include: Columbia River Carbonates, ECCI Calcium Products Inc., Franklin Industrial Minerals, Genstar Carbonates Inc., Georgia Marble Co., J.M. Huber Corp., and Specialty Minerals Inc.
(Tomorrow: The French experience.)