Vermont allowing toxic emissions

February 15, 2006
By Annette Smith

Most Vermonters are lucky enough to live in communities with dairy farms, scenic vistas, rushing streams and meandering creeks. On nice days, we take advantage of our surroundings by working in the yard or taking a walk. But in recent years, residents of one community have had to abandon their gardens or turn home from their walks, driven back by noxious fumes that permeate their neighborhood.

The community is Florence, and the problem is not theoretical. The air pollution in the neighborhood has been described by residents as "atrocious," "prevalent every single day," and "so bad it almost gagged me." The air is often filled with a visible cloud that causes a burning sensation in the nose and throat. There is an acrid odor emanating from the cloud of "steam."

You might be saying, "This is Vermont, where we care about clean air, so certainly the state agencies charged with regulating industrial air pollutants must be taking actions to assure that our health and safety are not at risk, right?"

Unfortunately for the residents of Florence, the answer is no, the state is not enforcing environmental regulations to protect their health.

The company that is polluting the air in their neighborhood, Omya Inc., has known since at least 2002 that neighbors are experiencing air pollution. Omya's plant manager was quoted in an October 2002 Rutland Herald article as promising that Omya would "work to resolve complaints about a bad, plastic-like smell from (their) plant."

Despite numerous complaints and public promises, nothing was done to stop the pollution. Throughout 2003 and 2004, neighbors continued to complain about the fumes coming from Omya's plant. Instead of addressing the continuing issue, Omya's plant manager accused the neighbors of trying to cause trouble for Omya and suggested that the fumes were caused by neighbors burning trash.

Omya's air pollution permit clearly states that the company must not cause the kind of problems that have been plaguing their neighbors for over three years. It says "Omya, Inc. shall not discharge, cause, suffer, allow, or permit from any source whatsoever such quantities of air contaminants or other material which will cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to any considerable number of people or to the public or which endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public or which causes or has the tendency to cause injury or damage to business or property" and "OMYA shall not discharge, cause, suffer, allow or permit any emissions of objectionable odors beyond the property line of the facility."

Repeated attempts to get the state to do something resulted in this response from Agency of Natural Resources staff in Dec. 2004: "I am optimistic that Omya will move forward voluntarily in the near future to address these odor and potential air toxics issues." The attorney general's office summed up the inaction in a Feb. 10, 2005, letter that stated, "It appears that the (Department of Environmental Conservation) is working diligently on these matters and has your stated concerns and requests in mind."

When the "appearance" of action was still not apparent to them, neighbors gave up on any state action and worked with lawyers at the Vermont Law School to successfully pressure Omya to conduct "voluntary" studies. Phase I of the study was released in April 2005 and found that Omya's Florence facility was indeed the source of air pollution in the neighboring community.

Phase II of the study was released in January of this year. The report identified some of the actual chemical compounds that Omya's neighbors have been breathing. They include benzene, toluene, 1,3-butadiene, styrene, xylene, and many other chemicals, which might best be described as a potent soup of toxic chemicals including carcinogens and neurotoxins.

Omya's neighbors have been exposed to toxic chemicals for years, and the state of Vermont has not enforced laws intended to protect the public from harm.

To many of us, it is shocking that Vermont's state environmental and regulatory agencies tolerate toxic emissions in our neighborhoods. Gov. Jim Douglas is willing to set aside hundreds of thousands of state dollars to fund a lawsuit against International Paper in New York over toxic emissions, but his administration does not enforce our own state's laws. How much longer is this situation going to be allowed to continue? If we want change, we must speak out. We hope you will join us in asking the governor to stop the air pollution coming from Omya's factory in Vermont.

Annette Smith of Danby is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.