Rutland Herald Commentary

Ruling could affect health of Vermonters

September 20, 2003


A statewide precedent affecting the health of residents across Vermont, as well as our environment, is scheduled to be determined this week. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg, on behalf of Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth McLain, will decide whether or not contaminated mineral processing waste should be classified as “earth materials,” equivalent to dirt and rock.

This decision holds great weight because if contaminated mineral processing waste is equated with “earth materials,” it can be spread above town and private water supplies, on school playgrounds, in children’s sandboxes, and houses can be built on it.

Right now, residents of Florence, a village of Pittsford, are awaiting this decision because OMYA Inc., a multinational calcium carbonate mining and processing company, has requested an exemption from solid waste rules from the Department of Environmental Conservation Solid Waste Division, which would allow processing waste containing an estimated 30,000,000 pounds of chemicals in mining and processing waste to be stockpiled uphill from their town and private water supplies over the next 10 years.

This issue came to light last October when residents of Florence were informed by OMYA of its plan to build a 32-acre, 80-foot high mine tailings dump site, and that the company had already received an exemption from the solid waste rules from DEC. This dumpsite would be located in and on an unlined, fractured, porous, bedrock quarry full of groundwater, and would contain chemicals like toluene and acetone.

Residents questioned the validity of this proposal: Is it really legal for mining and processing waste contaminated by potentially health-threatening chemicals to be stockpiled in this manner? Wouldn’t the quarry leak the chemicals through the bedrock, run downhill and end up in the town and nearby water supplies? What would happen if the chemicals became airborne and were inhaled?

Florence residents brought their concerns directly to then-Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation Chris Recchia, who agreed to review the exemption.

Commissioner Recchia explained that in order to qualify for an exemption from solid waste rules, the state must first decide if the contaminated waste qualifies as an “earth material” and also whether or not it will present a public health or environmental risk.

In the Act 250 hearing, OMYA’s hydrogeologist agreed that the quarries are porous, but assured residents that this water would not run downhill. Residents, unappeased, continued to press the issue.

OMYA’s hydrogeologist was then asked if there are safe drinking water levels set for all contaminants that may end up in the mine tailings. Unfortunately, the answer was “no.” Some contaminants in the proposed mine tailings dumpsite do not have a safe level set, nor a benchmark or regulatory standard. “The lack of a standard does not assume that zero is the standard,” he told the Pittsford Zoning Board.

Residents then questioned what standards other states have for the storage of this type of material. Two experts, an engineer and a hydrogeologist, informed Florence residents that in Massachusetts this material would be stored in a lined landfill so that the leachate would be collected and would not be allowed to migrate into groundwater.

Other concerns have surfaced about how Vermont regulates OMYA’s chemicals. OMYA’s process water, which contains chemicals, goes into settling ponds that are also old quarries full of groundwater in fractured bedrock. In Arizona, OMYA’s settling ponds are plastic-lined, foot-thick reinforced concrete. According to OMYA’s application for an aquifer protection permit, “OMYA has multiple other calcium carbonate plants that employ a “wet” process and the use of a settling basin similar to that to be used at the new facility.” Residents raise the question: Does Arizona have better standards than Vermont for protecting groundwater from contamination?

The decision on whether or not OMYA’s proposed mine tailings dumpsite is “exempt” will be announced this Thursday, Sept. 25, by the new Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Jeff Wennberg.

It will be a politically difficult choice for Commissioner Wennberg to require OMYA to comply with more stringent environmental standards and to provide assurance that OMYA’s chemicals will not contaminate surrounding water supplies. If Commissioner Wennberg decides to consider contaminated mineral processing waste as “earth materials,” exempt from regulation, it will be equally difficult for the residents of Florence, and eventually residents across Vermont, to accept that their water, air and soil are safe. The precedent this decision sets will either be one of recklessness that potentially endangers public health for years to come, or it will be taking necessary precautions to assure that the public health is being protected.

Annette Smith is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc., in Danby; Alyssa Schuren is the Vermont field director of Toxics Action Center in Montpelier; and Ben Davis is an environmental advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier.