Friday 7 July 2000
Secretive company has Perth in a huff
A battle is brewing thanks to poor PR and a huge need for Tay River water

Kelly Egan

The Ottawa Citizen

Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen / OMYA, a processor of calcium carbonate, has installed a giant rock crusher to process material from a nearby mine.

Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen / Spending on upgrading the plant put $20 million into the Perth economy last year, says vice-president Olivier Chatillon.

Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen / The benefits of that are lost on many townsfolk, however, who resent the firm's aloof manner and its demands for water from the Tay River.

PERTH -- In the beginning, all they knew was the funny name, the five-star French accent, the loud jingle in the pockets. What, the town wondered, was OMYA all about?

Thinking big, it turns out, but as quietly as possible.

OMYA (Canada) Inc. is just putting the final strokes on a $500-million plant expansion on its 120-hectare site just west of town. Five hundred million dollars -- enough to build two Corel Centres and have $100 million left over.

Massive does not quite catch its breadth. OMYA has taken an old-style mineral processing operation, vastly modernized it, and put a roof over the entire venture.

The 40-tonne trucks even dump indoors. At the other end, fresh out of a robotic bagging unit, come ultra-white products with names like Snowhite 21.

It has the largest mineral grinding wheel in the world, 10 metres wide and fastened with nuts the size of a tire. It has scales that can weigh several rail cars at once. It has conveyor belts the length of football fields. It has a tower 70 metres high. It has so much remote technology the plant can be run by three people.

Perhaps it is a Swiss thing, but the company has spent a fortune trying to impose order on a messy, dusty endeavour.

"Do you know," asks vice-president Olivier Chatillon, he of the French-accent, the rimless glasses, the Swiss Army watch, "that we contributed $20 million in local spending last year?"

The company takes calcium carbonate, mined from an open pit 40 kilometres north, and grinds it into smaller and smaller pieces. The golf-ball sized chunks are sold in the familiar form of white landscaping stones.

When refined to the level of powder, it is used in everything from floor tiles to drywall to antacid tablets. In wet form, called slurry, it is sold by the rail-car to papermakers to make white, glossy paper.

Until now, OMYA has been most famous for being the company that wants to suck vast amounts of water from the little Tay River -- up to 4.5 million litres a day within 10 years.

A decision on its application, hotly opposed locally, may come as early as next week.

With its plant nearly finished, OMYA is beginning to work on its exterior image. This week, it has been taking reporters on tours of its complex in a show of corporate goodwill. (It took over the plant in 1988 and spent the past four years doing its major overhaul.)

While OMYA may be a world leader in the chemical industry, it is still a novice in the public relations field.

It doesn't have a single fact sheet on the expansion, yet sees fit to haul its lawyer and water consultant from Ottawa to Perth to meet with reporters, who are offered company jackets and a bag of OMYA trinkets.

It has hired former township reeve Bryce Bell to help with its outreach, though -- being a former politician -- he is viewed by some stakeholders with suspicion.

As for company literature, the only publication offered was an eight-year-old booklet now seriously out of date.

Those who have watched OMYA during the last five years report the company has been either inconsistent with its level of openness or outright secretive.

The Township of Bathurst, Burgess, Sherbrooke, for instance, formed an industrial advisory committee, largely in response to concerns about the OMYA operation.

Citizens representative Sam Kingdon says OMYA applied for its water-taking permit -- its single most controversial public action -- and never told the committee.

"They're certainly viewed as being very tight-lipped about what's going on," said Mr. Kingdon, who considers OMYA's high-tech environmental wizardry as simply a function of doing business in today's economy.

Carol Dillon, a member of the Tay River Watershed Round Table, goes even further.

"Generally speaking, this community does not speak with pride about this company," she said. "This is not a problem that can be glad-handed away."

Mr. Bell disarmingly admits he "knows nothing" about public relations, though he will persist in reminding you, contrary to the rumour mill, that Mr. Chatillon is a Canadian citizen.

"The reason I got involved this time around is that there was a lot polarization going around," says Mr. Bell.

"The 'we-versus-they' kind of thing. OMYA is a given. It's here, it will be operating for a long time. We can either take cheap shots at it, or work at building partnerships in the community."

The they is a division of a huge international company called Pluss-Stauffer AG, with headquarters in Switzerland. The firm, privately controlled by a family called Schachenmann, began in 1884 making glazier's putty.

Today, it has about 150 plants in more than 30 countries around the world, including two in Canada, and employs about 200 directly and indirectly in its Perth-area operation.

According to its Web site, Pluss-Stauffer is the world's largest supplier of ground calcium carbonate to the paper, paint and plastic industries, with a North American capacity of roughly 2.5 million tonnes annually.

(The word OMYA, incidentally, comes from a shortening of the phrase "Les Omyats," a reference to the townspeople of Omey, France, one of the company's founding sites.)

Mr. Chatillon, who is in fact both a French and a Canadian citizen, says business is going so well that production has increased four times the level of 1992.

This is a business where volumes are huge. Orders for slurry, Mr. Chatillon admits, come in the thousands of tonnes. In anticipation of growth, the company has applied for the additional water, which it wants to draw from a 1.5-kilometre pipeline to the Tay.

The operation needs so much water for two main reasons: It needs to create the slurry in the first place and to clean out the specially lined railcars that carry the product all over North America.

(The cars must be meticulously cleaned before they are refilled. Contamination from previous loads can ruin the slurry.)

During the expansion, which employed 350 construction workers at its peak, the plant added several processes to conserve water.

It has two monstrous holding pens -- 65 metres in diameter -- that thicken suspended particles and capture water already in the system.

To avoid evaporation, $1-million roofs were added, as was a filter press that squeezes out remnants of the white powder.

"We're going to recycle every drop of water in this plant," vows Mr. Chatillon, a chemical engineer by training.

Water-taking permits are actually quite common in Ontario, with about 1,000 in effect at any one time.

While 4.5 million litres daily is a lot of water -- about the same as the 6,000 people in the town of Perth use, for comparison -- it is between two and five per cent of the historic low flow of the river.

OMYA had the misfortune of applying for a water-taking permit when public confidence in the government's ability to monitor water -- given Walkerton, the historic low-levels of 1999 -- is probably at an all-time low.

The Ministry of the Environment says it does not grant permits if it is satisfied that adverse environmental impacts will result. It is paying careful attention to the Tay permit, which has drawn the attention of groups like the Council of Canadians.

The Tay proposal resulted in 300 letters from the public, every one of which OMYA was required to analyse and respond to.

The Tay, while a small river in a 45-lake watershed, is an important link between the popular cottage country of Bob's and Christie lakes and the Rideau River system.

Currently, OMYA is drawing its water from wells, and has a permit to take out 870,000 litres a day.

The mine itself, near the hamlet of Tatlock, has enough calcium carbonate to last about 50 years.

Mr. Bell, meanwhile, says OMYA is committed to a long-term investment in the community. He has put together a steering committee of civic leaders with the goal of creating a multimillion-dollar community foundation.

He hopes it will take shape next year. "This 'we-they' thing has to stop," concludes Mr. Bell.