Burlington Free Press
March 20, 2003

The 'little people' look for a fair shake

By Candace Page

The permitting process is too difficult and costly for Vermonters who want to challenge a development they believe will damage the environment.

Vermont's system is too open to development opponents and invites "not-in-my-back yard" opposition.

Last of a five-part series

Linda Poro, 46, works as a mental health aide. Bev Peterson, 56, is unemployed.

They live on the rural outskirts of Florence, a village in Pittsford, where one of their neighbors is OMYA, a multinational industrial company they fear will pollute their water.

Since December, the two women have been leading an effort to stop or modify OMYA's plans to pile an 80-foot-high hill of marble tailings at its Pittsford plant.

OMYA's experts say runoff from the tailings won't reach any wells and wouldn't pose a threat in any case.

Poro, Peterson and other neighbors aren't reassured, but even pooling their resources, they can afford only minimal legal and technical expertise to make their case to regulators.

"Here were Mom and Pop Vermont, armed with little more than their very legitimate concerns, and they were on the ropes and fading fast,'' said Michael Fannin, a Tinmouth Selectboard member who observed one OMYA hearing.

OMYA ''had previous experience, experts and data, they were familiar with the board, they had the political lobby ... but most importantly they had lots of money, the most essential of ingredients,'' Fannin told a Statehouse hearing on permit reform.

Christie Harris, OMYA's community relations coordinator, said the company wants to take neighbors' concerns into account.

As for neighbors' belief that the system is tilted toward companies like OMYA, she said, ''The process is open for (neighbors') participation, as for anyone else. I don't think the company would comment beyond that.''

Fighting the system

Developers are not the only people who complain about the expense, complexity and unpredictability of Vermont's environmental permit process.

Individuals and groups who have challenged developers' plans say the permit process tilts against those who seek to modify or defeat a building project.

That's wrong, they say, because it's ordinary residents who often protect Vermont's natural resources by forcing developers to redesign projects to minimize their impact.

Without the citizens' group, Act 250 conditions would go unfulfilled and unnoticed,'' says Darlene Palola, chairwoman of the Stratton Area Citizens Committee, which fought to protect a mountain watershed from ski area development.

Those victories come at the price of volunteer work, fund raising and constant vigilance.

"We've been at it for 15 years,'' Peter Berg of Mount Holly Mountain Watch says of his group's watchdog role in a community between the Killington and Okemo ski areas. ''Very few developers with money don't get a permit these days.''

Neighbors worry

Poro stopped drinking the water from her tap more than two years ago, when she first heard about the chemicals OMYA uses at its manufacturing plant.

Peterson switched to bottled water this fall, when she learned of OMYA's new plans and started asking questions.

The two women said they simply are not convinced by OMYA's testing and assurances that no harmful chemicals will reach the town well.

The town well is downhill from the tailings site. Otter Creek is downhill from there,'' worried Peterson.

The Swiss-based company is one of the world's largest producers of calcium carbonate, a mineral used to coat paper and in products from paint to breakfast cereal.

A vein of marble rich in calcium carbonate runs through the hills of western Vermont. OMYA trucks the stone to a ridge in Pittsford, pulverizes the rock to extract the calcium carbonate and dumps the leftover tailings into an old quarry at the plant.

Because the quarry is nearly full, OMYA wants permission to stockpile the tailings on top of it.

The water debate

Peterson's group is particularly worried about chemicals, collectively called biocides, used to prevent mold and bacteria from growing in the calcium carbonate slurry.

They point to two chemical spills at the OMYA plant, in 2000 and earlier this year. What would happen, they ask, if chemicals accidentally leach into groundwater?

OMYA says the neighbors' worry is simply misplaced: None of the chemical spills ever left the property.

The biocides don't reach the tailings pile and, in any case, all the water in the tailings pile is recycled into the production process, the company told the Act 250 district commission.

Finally, according to OMYA's hydrogeologist, groundwater draining from the property stays in an aquifer separate from the one tapped by the town well.

Tests of the town well conducted by the town and paid for by OMYA have never shown any pollution from OMYA, said the company's environmental health and safety manager, Tom Sawyer. Neighbors would like more tests done for specific chemical compounds.

"We don't believe there is going to be any environmental impact from our plan,'' said Jim Reddy, president and CEO of OMYA Industries Inc. Trying to be heard

Peterson and Poro helped organize a loose coalition, Residents Concerned about OMYA, to oppose the company's plans.

The new group had just two weeks to prepare for the December Act 250 hearing, at which the company sought an environmental permit. Residents Concerned about OMYA received advice and information from an OMYA watchdog group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, but still felt overwhelmed.

"I was just thrust into this situation I was totally unprepared,'' said Peterson, whose voice still shakes when she testifies in front of an audience.

The District 8 Environmental Commission conducted the hearing.

OMYA produced experts, maps, hydrogeological analysis, the results of water testing and more.

Peterson's group had the help of a Massachusetts engineer. He questioned OMYA's witnesses, but the neighbors had no data or test results or expert witnesses of their own.

They had similar problems at a recent town zoning hearing in February, where they found themselves further tripped up by procedural rules. They weren't allowed to introduce photographs to bolster their case about the direction of groundwater flow near the OMYA site because the person who took the photographs wasn't present.

"We don't have money for studies. This is a really poor group - we're barely able to photocopy things,'' Peterson lamented.

A citizen advocate

No decisions have been announced in the OMYA case, but observers such as Fannin, the Tinmouth Selectboard member, say regardless of the outcome groups like Residents Concerned about OMYA need help navigating the permit process.

"I think the state leadership could make this process much more fair by creating an office of citizen advocate,'' Fannin told a Statehouse hearing recently.

Such an advocate, Fannin and others say, could help citizen groups understand how local zoning and regional Act 250 review works.

In some cases, the public advocate could commission independent studies of a project's environmental impact.

"Since there isn't an independent advocate for the environment, citizens get the job de facto,'' said Aaron Adler, former counsel to the Environmental Board. ''But they don't really understand the process, so their voice isn't effectively heard.''

Although the Agency of Natural Resources sometimes provides its own analysis of environmental impacts to Act 250 commissions, it does not do so in every case.

Chuck Nichols of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce questions the need for a public advocate. That job, he said, already belongs to cities and towns, which have a formal role in Act 250 hearings.

"They are the advocates for the general good,'' he said.

Adler is skeptical.

"Have you checked to see whether it's happening? Towns don't participate much in the Act 250 process,'' he said. ''Citizens need a guide.''

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or 229-9141 or cpage@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com