Rutland Herald

Omya shuts down plant over emissions

June 14, 2006

By Bruce Edwards Herald Staff

PITTSFORD — Formaldehyde emissions that exceed state ambient air levels has forced Omya Inc. to shut down the smaller of its two calcium carbonate plants.

The company voluntarily shut down its Omya East plant on Friday after receiving a preliminary odor study that found that formaldehyde emissions from two dryers at the plant exceeded regulatory limits, James Reddy, Omya's president for North American operations, said Tuesday.

Reddy added that while the emissions are above established limits, they posed no health threat.

He said the presence of formaldehyde and acrolein was expected since both are byproducts of internal combustion like that found in automobile and furnace emissions. But Reddy said the company was "surprised and concerned" that the level of emissions were slightly above the state's regulatory limits at the plant's property line.

"We were surprised and initially concerned to learn that emissions at the smokestack at the east plant included levels of formaldehyde and acrolein that exceed Vermont's levels for regulatory action," Reddy said in a statement. "However, once we learned the impact on ambient air quality of these emissions we realized that, although we are technically above the state levels, the concentration levels we found at our plant are no higher and in most cases lower than the state has reported as normal ambient levels in communities as disparate as Rutland, Burlington and Underhill."

Reddy said in a later interview that acrolein levels only exceeded state standards in the smokestack but were within ambient air limits.

He said the study determined that extremely high temperatures produced by the plant's equipment coupled with the chemical makeup of stearic acid used in the manufacturing process can change and produce formaldehyde and acrolein.

The company adds stearic acid, a vegetable-based product, in its manufacturing process for calcium carbonate that's used in kosher food packaging.

Reddy said TRC Environmental Corp., which conducted the odor study, determined that the formaldehyde concentrations exceeded state standards but only by .03 micrograms per cubic meter above the standard of .08 micrograms per cubic meter.

He said that the company was "assured by toxicology experts that neither the emissions levels nor the ambient air concentrations constitute a threat to the health of our employees and the people living near the plant."

Omya's study was forwarded to the state Agency of Natural Resources for review.

Reddy said company and state officials met Tuesday to determine what course of action to take to resolve the problem.

Located in the Florence section of Pittsford, the Omya East plant is the oldest and smallest of the two plants, employing nine workers and roughly accounting for less than 10 percent of the company's calcium carbonate production in Vermont. The adjacent Omya West plant employs 170, plus 30 contractors.

"We haven't laid anybody off," Reddy said, referring to the Omya East plant workers. "They've been assigned to maintenance and other tasks."

Reddy said the Omya East plant would remain shut down "until we can resolve the issue."

The test results that closed the plant represented the third phase of an odor study Omya agreed to conduct last year after neighbors complained of odors coming from the plant. The study was done with input from the DEC.

While Omya said there is no health risk from its emissions, the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation is reserving judgment until his staff does a thorough analysis.

"Obviously, any time we find or a permittee finds that there is an exceedence, or a violation of a standard, that is a serious circumstance," DEC Commissioner Jeffery Wennberg said Tuesday. "I think Omya acted very proactively in voluntarily shutting down the boilers as soon as they found out they had a violation and certainly that is the right response."

Wennberg said he's eager to know why previous periodic testing at the plant never indicated a violation. He added, however, that the latest study is the most comprehensive one that's been done to date.

Annette Smith, who has opposed Omya over the years as executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, expressed satisfaction that the company had taken steps to correct the problem.

"I actually view this as a positive," Smith said. "I think that the neighbors have been making legitimate complaints for more than three years and it's only through pressure from Vermont Law School that this odor study happened."

Vermont Law School has represented the group, Neighbors Concerned about Omya.

Smith, though, wasn't sold on the company's assurances that the emissions pose no health risk.

"I don't have enough information to know but formaldehyde is a suspected human carcinogen," she said. "Any time you expose people to a suspected human carcinogen, yes there is a potential risk."

Omya is the world's largest manufacturer of ground calcium carbonate. The crushed marble is used in thousands of products including antacid tablets, biodegradable food containers, auto parts, paper and paint.

Contact Bruce Edwards at