Ottawa Citizen
June 18, 2002

Swiss-based multinational OMYA is at the centre of several battles by a number of communities trying to counter globalization with a brand of civic multinationalism.

Dave Rogers

Colour Photo: Vyto Starinskas, The Ottawa Citizen / Perth Resident Carol Dillon joined residents in Tinmouth, Vermont, at the global hearing recently.
Colour Photo: Bruno Heinzer, The Ottawa Citizen /Environmentalists hoped to protect two endangered plants at the OMYA site near Vingrau, France, and preserve the home of some of the area's eagles. But the French government took the plants off the endangered list when they were found at the OMYA site.
Colour Photo: Dave Rogers, The Ottawa Citizen / Steve Burzon, of Danby, Vermont, says the planned OMYA quarry would ruin the picturesque valley where he lives.

DANBY, Vermont - In the shadow of a scarred mountain peak on the edge of this quiet village, an unlikely alliance of men and women from small towns in France, Canada and the United States was forged this month to combat their common foe: OMYA, a Swiss-based multinational corporation every bit as imposing as the marble mountains to the west.

OMYA, in fact, wants some of that marble. And - despite facing strong opposition during its successful push to become the world's largest producer of calcium carbonate - it has a solid track record of getting what it wants.

The company's intentions here have been starkly declared; a test excavation has left a strip of clearcut and exposed rock along a stretch of the Taconic Mountains that form Danby's breathtaking backdrop.

OMYA already has several mining and milling operations in southwestern Vermont, famous for its vast reserves of white marble. But people from Danby and several nearby towns have drawn a line on the land. They want to stop the company from expanding into their community, and have now joined forces with others from around the world who've also battled the Swiss giant - including Carol Dillon, a leader in the ongoing struggle to stop OMYA from tripling the amount of water it draws from the Tay River for its manufacturing plant in Perth, 100 kilometres west of Ottawa.

Dubbed the "world OMYA summit," meetings held in early June in Danby and neighbouring Tinmouth represent an extraordinary attempt by several far-flung communities to fight fire with fire, to counter corporate globalization with a kind of civic multinationalism.

"We came because sometimes challenging an issue like this can be a lonesome road," said Ms. Dillon, who was accompanied to Vermont by Michael Cassidy, a Perth-area property owner and former leader of the Ontario NDP.

"We have a very large international company that has a lot of money and a lot of power," she said. "They move into a community and don't seem to respect local values. They just bulldoze through."

Annette Smith, chief executive officer of Vermonters For a Clean Environment, a lobby group fighting OMYA's expansion plans in southern Vermont, says the company hates to lose any battle with area opponents.

"If OMYA gets what they want everywhere, what does that mean 250 years from now?" says Ms. Smith. "OMYA is a company that gets what it wants through litigation, public relations and lobbying, not by working with communities."

The Canadian participants at the summit brought something with them that's in short supply among OMYA opponents: a partial victory. A recent decision by Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal limited OMYA's take from the Tay River to 1.5 million litres a day instead of the 4.5 million litres the company wanted.

OMYA's Canadian president, Olivier Chatillon, has appealed the decision to divisional court and has informed Premier Ernie Eves that he will warn international investors about the "red tape and regulatory burden" in Ontario if the company doesn't get its 4.5 million litres of water a day.

Mr. Cassidy, who owns a cottage near Tatlock, says the company is seeking an official plan amendment in the municipality of Lanark Highlands that would allow it to quadruple production at its quarry to four million tonnes of marble a year.

He calculates that one heavy truck will pass his cottage every two to three minutes if OMYA expands its production.

If the quarry in Danby, Vermont goes ahead, the marble will be blasted out and hauled away in 18-wheelers or rail cars to be ground up and mixed with water at plants elsewhere in the state.

Summit participants portrayed OMYA as a tenacious opponent determined to get every bit of marble it can by lobbying governments and fighting opponents in court.

"We came to see what we could learn about the similarities and the differences in our situations," said Ms. Dillon. "It's useful to see what strategies they have learned in Vermont that we could learn from, and what strategies that we have used that might be successful here. It's just a trading of ideas, not an OMYA-bashing by any means. It's the same reason doctors go to conventions."

OMYA operates 130 processing plants in 30 countries, making it the largest calcium carbonate producer in the world. It sells a slurry the consistency of mustard to makers of toothpaste, paper, plastics, paint, cleansers, ceiling tile, cosmetics, calcium pills and even chewing gum.

Renaud Chastagnol, the deputy mayor of Vingrau in southern France, said his village of 450 people recently lost a bitter, sometimes violent 12-year struggle with OMYA that began in 1990.

Almost everybody in the village opposed the quarry, but senior levels of government approved it repeatedly. The villagers fought back in almost 100 court cases and repeated sit-ins. The mayor, municipal councillors and six female protesters went on 21-day hunger strikes to draw attention to their struggle.

Environmentalists hoped to protect two endangered plants on the site and preserve the home of some of the last Bonelli's eagles in France. But the French government took the plants off the endangered list when they were found at the OMYA site near Vingrau.

On Oct. 26, 1995, hundreds of villagers and their supporters blocked the road to the quarry with tires, cans and rocks.

"OMYA never surrenders even a square metre of calcium carbonate because they don't want to lose a fight," Mr. Chastagnol said. "I participated in all the demonstrations except the hunger strikes because I am too thin and was the spokesman for the village.

"We blocked the road to the quarry because we thought it was so unfair and anti-democratic to remove those plants from the endangered list. More than 140 anti-riot troops arrived at 6 a.m. with shields, batons and guns. They hit me with their sticks and I had blue spots everywhere. We had broken arms, old women were pulled by the hair and one man had a stroke - it was just crazy."

Mr. Chastagnol said OMYA is digging a 98-hectare quarry above the village and has built a processing plant. He said villagers expect dust problems from the quarry because there is little water in the area and heavy truck traffic.

Mr. Chastagnol, who distributes Cote de Rousillon Villages and Muscat de Rivesaltes wine from the village to buyers throughout the world, said some experts fear the wine will be ruined by calcium carbonate dust and the vines destroyed by disease.

"This has all been for nothing," Mr. Chastagnol said about the decade-long effort to resist OMYA. "That is why it gives me a bitter taste about my country. France is giving democracy lessons to the rest of the world, but should sweep away the dust at its front door first. We did absolutely everything we could for 10 years and we lost.

"I am not going to burn myself on the site like a Cambodian monk," he continued. "I can't move because Vingrau is my home, so I will do my best to carry on."

The village was promised 200 jobs in an area where unemployment is more than 17 per cent. But Mr. Chastagnol said the operation has produced only a few jobs because the processing plant is automated.

Vermonters say the OMYA quarry planned in Danby poses an environmental affront to their quiet valley and is clear proof that the company won't listen to concerns of residents.

Vermont Agriculture Department records show the company used 1.5 million kilograms of biocides from 1995 to 1999, making it the largest user in the state.

OMYA Inc. president Jim Reddy said the chemicals are really preservatives designed to control "bugs and mould" in its product. He acknowledged that the chemicals have overflowed into holding tanks, which are actually disused quarries, but insists there was no environmental hazard.

Brian Kooiker of Vermont's Environmental Resources Department said the chemicals have never been detected in ground water near OMYA's plants in the state.

Mr. Reddy said he can't understand the company's opponents. He said calcium carbonate is used to reduce acid rain emissions from coal-fired power plants and produce more environmentally friendly paper and plastics. "We work with community groups and environmental groups," Mr. Reddy said. "In California, we opened a plant in the Mojave National Preserve without any controversy because we met with the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society and the Bighorn Sheep Society.

"I do not recognize the company these people are talking about at the conference in Vermont. We haven't even submitted an application for a permit in Danby. When the environmental studies are complete, we will determine how we can best meet the environmental regulations."

Critics of OMYA's Vermont operations say a large quarry in Danby would mean heavy truck traffic and increased noise on narrow, twisting two-lane roads.

Annette Smith, who opposes the OMYA plan to open the quarry, said the development probably won't go ahead until the company improves the nearby rail line.

"They could use trucks to transport their products, but they know that surrounding towns have control over our roads," Ms. Smith said. If they do have to go to court (to open the quarry) "we will have to raise about half a million dollars. If that doesn't scare you, I tell you it scares me."

She added that the group has appealed OMYA's chemical discharge permit, which allows them to dump chemicals into a creek, because the citizens in the town of Florence are concerned about the quality of their water after OMYA's biocide spills, a number of which have led to state charges against the company.

"Small communities often accepted companies like OMYA because they felt they needed the jobs and economic development," said Ms. Dillon, an appellant in the Tay River case. "Now communities want to take part in planning such development."

She said concerns about OMYA in Ontario, Vermont and France are similar because the company is "a large presence in small communities. Small communities resent them moving in, buying up properties and doing it all in secret. We are not against development, but we are against unbridled development."

Ms. Dillon said there has to be a balance between the peace and quiet that rural residents want and the development that OMYA wants. "There is a place for extraction industries, but they need to be in keeping with the size of the community," Ms. Dillon said. "We are asking for a new relationship with this company and would like OMYA to remain in our community for 50 years. Our fear is that they will quadruple production and be gone in 10."

Vermonters for a Clean Environment