OMYA gets approval to triple Tay River water take
4.5M litres a day 'will not cause harm,' minister says

The Ottawa Citizen 
Dave Rogers and Kevin Ritchie
Saturday, February 15, 2003

Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell overruled the province's Environmental Review Tribunal and bypassed the courts yesterday by agreeing to a demand by Swiss multinational company OMYA Canada Inc. to triple the amount of water it takes from the Tay River near Perth.

The minister's decision, released late yesterday afternoon, said the OMYA's plan to increase water-taking "will not cause harm to the Tay River watershed."

In June, the company threatened to warn international investors against doing business in Ontario unless it received the 4.5 million litres a day it said it needed from the shallow river.

OMYA mixes the water with ground calcium carbonate quarried at Tatlock north of Perth to produce a slurry with about the consistency of mustard.

The white slurry is used to produce products such as paper, paint, toothpaste, wallboard, calcium pills and antacids.

Last February, Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal ruled that the company should take only 1.5 million litres of water a day from the river after hearing dozens of witnesses say that taking too much water could lower the level of the river and lakes upstream.

Steven Shrybman, a lawyer who has represented the Council of Canadians in the case, said yesterday that if the company has "declared war on Ontario, Mr. Stockwell has run up the white flag.

"The Environmental Review Tribunal said there wasn't enough evidence to support taking 4.5 million litres of water a day from the river. We don't know enough about the watershed to say that taking that much water won't have a harmful impact on the environment. That amount will exceed the water used daily to produce all the beer, soft drinks and bottled water in Canada. Most of it will be sent to the United States."

Mr. Shrybman said the decision is significant because it is the first test the government has faced since the Walkerton inquiry, which called for comprehensive watershed studies before the Ministry of the Environment grants water-taking permits.

"Walkerton was a water-quality issue, and this is a water-quantity issue," Mr. Shrybman said. "But what they both have in common is the need to know enough about the larger ecosystem before you can understand the environmental impacts associated with different activities."

Dozens of cottagers and Perth-area residents argued that taking too much water from the river could destroy fish spawning grounds, leave the town without enough drinking water and increase the concentration of pollutants in the river. A federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans study after the hearing said the water-taking would reduce the level of the river by only a few millimetres and there would be no adverse effects on fish.

OMYA president Olivier Chatillon appealed the Environmental Review Tribunal decision to divisional court and wrote to Ontario Premier Ernie Eves saying he would advise other investors not to do business in Ontario unless OMYA got the water it wanted.

"As you know, I have long been an active supporter of investment in Ontario, within our own company, as a trade counsel to the French embassy and with my colleagues in the mining industry here and in Europe," Mr. Chatillon said in the letter to Mr. Eves. "I speak regularly on this topic and participate in numerous industry conferences.

"The two-year saga over our water permit has placed me in an extremely awkward situation. When asked the very important questions about red tape and regulatory burden, it is hard not to reflect on the fact that after two years, and although no provincial, federal or independent study has ever recommended against our project, it remains stalemated awaiting a government go-ahead."

Residents of the Tay watershed say the minister's decision is politically motivated, with something for everybody.

"He's returned us to the grand days when the resources belonged to the king and the king gives them to his friends," said Frank Roy, secretary treasurer for the Tay River Legal Defence Fund. "It's an offensive blow to civil society."

Property owners believe allowing OMYA to haul 4.5 million litres each day will hurt fish spawning in nearby lakes and cause the shallow river to periodically run dry.

"He's reversed the tribunal's decision and therefore he's emasculated the environmental bill of rights," Mr. Roy said. "Having exercised ministerial discretion, it proves we can change our policies at any time we like. So the legality of the matter is irrelevant."

One victory for the residents in the decision is a public review process. OMYA is now required to hire a qualified consultant to prepare a report on water removal and hold a public meeting.

Carol Dillon, a property owner in the area, said up until now there's been no information on how much water is being pumped.

"It's like a bank account. You don't know how much money is there but you let people keep writing big cheques on it," she said. "This is a success for the people in the community."

However, she called the minister's decision a failure for Ontario, arguing that other concerned citizens will look at this case and think twice about fighting corporations in the tribunal. "This has been a three-year process," she said. "And we're back to where we started."

Her husband, Mel Dillon, noted that unlike in the tribunal decision, Mr. Stockwell did not mention whether the company will have to cease pumping groundwater once it begins hauling from the river.

OMYA, a subsidiary of the Pluss-Staufer Group, is the world's largest producer of ground calcium carbonate and it is the leading supplier of ground calcium carbonate to the paper industry. It has more than 140 plants and is part of a $4.3-billion industry producing about 15 million tonnes of minerals a year in more than 30 countries. The company says it employs more than 250 people and injects about $20 million annually into the Perth economy.