Rutland Herald Commentary

Misreading law he helped write

November 5, 2003

Patrick Parenteau’s recent commentary, “Wasting Vermont” (Oct. 29), was a disappointing exercise. His statement that the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation “has no authority to exempt OMYA’s operations from compliance with Vermont’s solid waste disposal laws” is flawed at best. Mr. Parenteau helped write the law. It is surprising that he does not remember it better.

The law in question is the Vermont Solid Waste Management Act, commonly known as Act 78, enacted in 1987, and implemented by the 1989 Solid Waste Management Rules. The rules include the following exemption:

“Earth materials resulting from mining, extraction, or processing operations except where the secretary determines that these materials may pose a threat to public health and safety, the environment, or cause a nuisance.”

The rules were adopted following a lengthy planning process required by the act and which resulted in the Solid Waste Management Plan, first published in 1989. In announcing the plan and the rules in February 1989, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources stated that it was “proud to share with you [Vermont’s citizens] the plan, rules and relevant statutes.” The agency further stated that “we believe these documents represent a sound strategy to achieve the ambitious goals outlined by the Vermont legislature” in Act 78. The basis of that belief was the obvious care that went into the preparation, revision, and public review of those documents.

Patrick Parenteau, then commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, prepared those documents and signed his name to the “proud” announcement. Patrick Parenteau also issued to OMYA one of a series of permits allowing the direct discharge of its process water, a permit in effect to this day.

The rules, including the exemption language quoted above, were subject to the legislative review and approval process before they became final. The Legislature has amended the Solid Waste Management Act on several occasions since the rules were adopted in 1989. There have been a number of opportunities for the Legislature to have eliminated the exemption that former Commissioner Parenteau put in place but now says never should have been included. The Legislature did not do so, and that same exemption still stands today, reflecting on both its legality and appropriateness.

On many occasions since the rules were adopted, the Agency of Natural Resources has concluded that materials resulting from various mining and mineral-processing operations were exempt from the solid waste certification requirements. OMYA requested the agency to make the same determination with regard to its tailings product, and that confirmation of exemption was issued in a letter on Sept. 30, 2002, which states that “the secretary [of the Agency of Natural Resources] has determined that OMYA Verpol plant tailings and associated management strategy as described do not pose a threat to public health and safety, the environment, or will cause a nuisance, and therefore are exempt.”

That is the real bottom line. The material is safe. This has been verified by respected independent environmental professionals whose scientific conclusions were scrutinized and accepted by the state’s own scientists, engineers and toxicologists, the commissioner, and the secretary. They acted in an unbiased manner as the laws dictate to protect the citizens and the environment of the state.

Vermonters deserve rational discussion and objective decisions based on science and the applicable laws and rules. At the time the rules were adopted, Mr. Parenteau publicly expressed his pride in a job well done. And so he should be proud. There is nothing wrong with the rules as they exist, or with the people appointed to implement them. The problem lies in the misrepresentation of facts and an imbalance in the dialogue.

Jim Reddy is president of OMYA Industries Inc.