Talking Business: Opponent scrutinizes OMYA's quarry
January 22, 2001
An interview with Annette Smith, the founder of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
By BRUCE EDWARDS
Question: Your organization is vehemently opposed to OMYA's proposed Jobe Phillips quarry in Danby. Does truck traffic remain the primary concern?
Annette Smith: Not at all. That's never been our primary concern. Our primary concern is that this is a totally inappropriate development for this valley. The trucking issue is somewhat of a lesser concern than the mine issue. The Jobe Phillips quarry is misleading in that the state has no record of there ever having been a quarry at that site. So it is actually a brand new proposal, not an existing quarry.
Q: Can you envision any scenario in which your group could support OMYA's project?
Smith: I have researched every possible way of looking at it. Aesthetic impact is one that cannot be mitigated. The valley is a beautiful, scenic valley that is used by the state to market the state. The type of mining OMYA does, which is very easy to see in Middlebury, South Wallingford and Hogback (Pittsford) is totally inappropriate for this valley. So I see no way of mitigating it. I've asked mining engineers is there any way to do this that it wouldn't be visible and the answer is no.
Q: OMYA's mitigation proposal includes construction of a berm. Would that help solve the aesthetic problem?
Smith: The berm is irrelevant. The elevation of the mine site is at 1,600 to 1,700 feet. That is the height of the most valuable scenic views in Danby. And the berm they're talking about building is nowhere near the hundreds of feet necessary to hide it.
Q: Going back to the truck issue, that is a major concern to Danby and surrounding towns.
Smith: I invite anyone who thinks this is a good idea to truck it out to come up here right now in winter and especially with the kind of truck being proposed to be used. These roads are very dangerous right now. And any route out of this valley is bad. If I encounter a stream of tractor trailer-sized dump trucks, 80 a day, someone is going to die. There is no question in my mind the safety issue is paramount and the towns do have control of their roads. The towns do have the ability to limit that kind of truck traffic. The roads simply are not built for it. We don't want them rebuilt for it. And there simply is no safe way out.
Q: The trucking companies that OMYA uses have a good safety record.
Smith: And they're riding on Route 7 and there are shoulders, passing lanes. These are narrow, winding, mountainous roads that are often snow and ice covered. There are accidents all the time. Cars flip over. Winter is especially dangerous.
Q: You mentioned the aesthetic issue. Yet, quarrying in Vermont, whether it's marble, slate or granite, has been a part of the state's heritage and economy for a long time. One could argue that OMYA's proposed quarry is in keeping with that heritage.
Smith: This is a very different kind of mining operation than is traditional Vermont quarrying. Danby is the home to the largest underground marble quarry in the world. The impact of that kind of marble quarrying is much less than the kind of impacts that are inflicted upon neighbors of OMYA's operations. The kind of blasting required of crushed rock operations, 60 times as strong as what's involved in quarry blasting. The type of mining that OMYA does has only been done in this state on the scale that OMYA is doing it in the last 20 years. And the product that they are producing has not been used in the paper-making industry until the last 20 years. This is all very new, very recent.
Q: In terms of the quarry itself, it would be a typical open pit quarry.
Smith: You would have a very visible pit. It's better called a strip mine. That's what it looks like. You strip away the overburden. OMYA owns a mile-and-a-half of the mountain. It's very clear what OMYA is planning to do here is a massive operation that will last for hundreds of years. If they get their permit, it will totally change this valley, destroy its natural beauty and the quality of life of its residents.
Q: One of the arguments in favor of the quarry is that it will create jobs and OMYA has a reputation of paying pretty good wages.
Smith: We have an economy here right now. We have five dairy farms that are potentially impacted by OMYA's proposal. I'm concerned about our economy right now. We want our dairy farms to stay in business. We don't want to see anything happen that will affect that. We have an agricultural base in this valley. It's supportive of home-based businesses. It's supportive of people who live and work on the land. It is a good economy that has got to be evaluated first before we place OMYA's plans into the context. The Rutland Economic Development Corp. has come out as the major cheerleader for OMYA. Yet they have done no economic analysis and shown no interest in doing any economic analysis of what we have here already. If we lose this, there is no getting it back.
As I understand it the South Wallingford deposit is almost depleted and it's quite likely they would just move that crew up there (Danby). So I don't see that it will result in new jobs. As far as the factory goes, the record on OMYA's expansion plans always indicate that it really doesn't mean any new jobs. The company prides itself on its highly automated facilities. Their talk about jobs at the plant is perhaps tied to construction jobs.
Q: What's the reaction by the Danby Select Board?
Smith: A Danby selectman attended a meeting, billed as an OMYA brainstorming session, on Dec. 1. The public didn't know anything about it. The public that attended the Danby Select Board meeting on Dec. 7 asked if there had been contact with OMYA and all three Select Board members said no. At the January meeting, the public had heard about a meeting with OMYA and asked if any of the Select Board had attended and the one who attended said he went as a private citizen, not as a member of the Select Board, and he didn't have to talk about it. The situation in Danby is unfortunately becoming more divisive, the public trust is declining. It's also unfortunate and unnecessary to have a company like OMYA come in and divide our town.
Q: What would the quarry add to the town's tax base?
Smith: OMYA has offered no estimates whatsoever.
Q: Would it serve any purpose for your group to sit down with OMYA officials and discuss their proposal?
Smith: I would be very receptive to a meeting with OMYA officials, state agency officials and other interested parties where the big picture was discussed - from Middlebury to Brandon to Pittsford to Rutland down to Danby. I have no interest in sitting down and talking with OMYA just about Danby because that's really not the issue. The issue is OMYA has had massive impacts all the way from Middlebury to Pittsford. Now, instead of resolving those problems they simply want to spread them further. I do not see that expanding their impacts at this point is going to be beneficial to our region. But I do think that it's time for the people of this region to sit down and have that discussion with OMYA about what their plans are for the future ... and to try to come up with some solutions.
Q: Are you looking forward to OMYA's report that is due out
this spring on the Jobe Phillips quarry proposal?
Smith: When they came to Danby at the end of September, they said ... that they expected those studies to come in at the end of the fall and that they would come and share them with the town of Danby. What I had heard about the ... brainstorming session in Rutland in December is that they have a lot of ideas but they still have no plan. So am I looking forward to the report? I don't know. This has been more than a year that OMYA has had no plan. I think this is an unacceptable situation ... to have two large industrial development projects land in one pristine valley and have absolutely no plans on the part of the developers about how to meet our laws.
Q: How will you raise enough money to oppose OMYA's project should the company move forward and file an Act 250 permit application?
Smith: We will have to raise - assuming OMYA would appeal this all the way to the Supreme Court - about $200,000 and it will have to be raised by the people of the region. I think this is an outrageous burden to place on the people, the citizens of Vermont ... to go up against a company like OMYA. It's simply not fair.
Q: The other development project you referred to is the proposed natural gas pipeline from Bennington to Rutland. At this point, doesn't that project appear dead?
Smith: For the record, the companies have not announced it was dead. So it would be wrong for me to say it was. I'm particularly concerned about Energy East, which is the parent company of NYSEG, the company that drew their pipeline through our properties ... and have really upset a lot of people from Rutland to Bennington. Energy East bills itself as a super regional energy company and I think they have much larger plans than just one pipeline. They refuse to say that this is dead. They say the opposition to this they consider a pothole. It's another example of corporate arrogance that has no place in our society.
Q: The gas pipeline has always been tied to the construction of two gas-fired electric generating plants. To date, developer Thomas Macaulay and his partner have not been able to raise the estimated $1 billion to build those plants. Without the plants, the pipeline developers have said the pipeline is not economically feasible.
Smith: They've said a lot of things that haven't turned out to be true, like natural gas is cheap. The power plants are dead. I believe that.
Q: Therefore it stands to reason the pipeline is dead.
Smith: Maybe not. There is still an agenda to build out the gas pipelines throughout New England. And it's an ill-conceived agenda, I believe based upon the gas supplies, and the concerns about gas supplies, and the price of gas. The New England power market has seen enough successful applications for new electric generation that I am not hearing any one express any concerns about New England's long-term power supply. I am hearing that assuming they can get the natural gas to run to fuel the power plants, that there will be an over capacity in a couple of years. So there is not a market for new natural gas-fired plants in New England right now.
Q: Wouldn't natural gas give Vermonters is this part of the state another energy option to choose from. Is that such a bad idea?
Smith: Let me put this in perspective. When the gas guys came in to sell us gas, gas was trading at about $2.18. Now, gas is trading at anywhere between $8 and $10. No one in their right mind, right now, would want to make an investment in a commodity that is so volatile and over which nationwide there is tremendous concern about the already existing ability to meet the demand that is being fueled by these natural gas power plants. So we need to take ideas and turn them into reality. We now know by the scoping done by the other gas company, Iroquois, that they acknowledge that this is extremely difficult to build terrain. In Iowa, no big deal running a gas pipeline, you run it through a field. Here, it all goes through rock.
Q: Talk about Vermonters for a Clean Environment. It began as the result of the gas pipeline proposal and now is focused on the OMYA project. Does your group have environmental concerns beyond Danby and Rutland and Bennington counties?
Smith: Right now we're concerned about Act 250 because we are counting on a fair hearing to stop this OMYA project in Danby. However, given the statistics that only 1.5 percent of all applications are denied, that's very alarming. I think Act 250 is a great law but it has been politicized by the appointments the governor has made to the boards (commissions) and the process itself isn't working the way it should be working. So that has expanded our concerns beyond Bennington and Rutland (counties).
This is a very interesting organization because unlike other environmental organizations in the state, which were essentially ideas that got funded, Vermonters for a Clean Environment is a people's organization ... where people called me. Everyone that I'm working with came to me and said let's work together. It's been really fascinating to see people come together and work for the common good.
Q: What do you have for a membership?
Smith: It's not that kind of organization. If someone wants to say they're a member they're welcome to. I don't keep records. We have members in every county but there's no dues to pay.
Q: Anything else?
Smith: Yes. I'd like to talk about the product OMYA makes. It is saying that they are producing something that is needed by society. And that's not an entirely accurate statement. Ground calcium carbonate, which is what OMYA produces, comes from pure, white marble and that's what we have in the Danby Four Corners valley. However, I was surprised to learn there is an alternative in the marketplace, called precipitated calcium carbonate, which is the choice of paper makers in this country. And it can be made using lesser grades of limestone. Also, OMYA has said their process is benign. There is no chemical reaction,they said. That's not true. OMYA is the largest user of pesticides (biocides) in the state. They use over a half-million pounds of biocides a year. Bio does not mean bio-degradable. Biocide means it kills things. It's to kill the microorganisms that like to eat the slurry ... and cause it to turn black.
No one has taken a holistic view of this company the entire time they've been operating here. They have hazardous waste permits. They have discharge permits. They have air pollution control permits. As they proved recently, they spilled a product which was a biocide. Nobody has been able to assure me the waters are safe. I've asked the state to see if the fisheries have been tested or if there is trend data on the Otter Creek or its tributaries. And nobody is looking. And while I can't say OMYA is creating any public health threat, I can say that nobody can tell me they are not.
I think the other area I'd like to discuss is the big picture. What are OMYA's plans? If OMYA wants to double in size, what does that mean for our region? Right now they're operating a company that is a 160 or so truck operation, raw material coming into the plant. They have said frequently and repeatedly that they want to do a $160 million plant expansion. If they double the size of their plant ..., then we're looking at the doubling of the need for plant feed.
They've said they need the 40 trucks a day from Danby to essentially meet the capacity of their plant. So that means they have a 200-truck-a-day operation. If they double ..., where are they going to get those other 200 trucks? I believe they want to get that from Danby. The deposit is certainly large enough. That's something we all need to look at.