Rutland Herald Editorial

Showing backbone

November 25, 2003

Jeffrey Wennberg, commissioner of environmental conservation, made a tough call last week in reversing course and requiring Omya Inc. to obtain a waste disposal permit for its mineral waste.

But given the presence of chemical pollutants in test wells near Omya's Florence plant, it appears that Wennberg had no choice. The exemption that allows mining waste to be disposed of without a permit cannot apply to material that contains traces of industrial chemicals harmful to drinking water.

Wennberg had issued a preliminary ruling that would have exempted Omya from the need for a permit. For him to allow his subsequent decision to be guided by the scientific findings adds to the credibility of his department.

It takes nothing away from Omya as an industry important to the Rutland region to take note of the danger to drinking water created by the chemicals in its tailings. It is far better to address the problem of pollution now than to allow pollution to become widespread. It is easy to go along, to ignore warnings, and to hope for the best. It is harder to exercise the backbone needed to respond to early warnings, as Wennberg has done.

Wennberg's decision may have been even harder because of an issue lurking in the background of the discussion of the solid waste permit. The question is this: If Omya is required to obtain a solid waste permit, does that mean its mineral waste must be considered solid waste? And if it is considered solid waste, does that mean Omya is required to pay the state tipping fee of $6 per ton on its waste?

Neither Wennberg nor Omya probably wants to see Omya's mineral waste subjected to the same fee that ordinary household trash incurs when dumped into a landfill. Omya's previously dumped tailings could incur a tipping fee totaling $18 million. For Omya's waste to be roped into the same category as household trash may be an unintended consequence of the finding that the company needs a solid waste permit.

Either an administrative or legislature fix could resolve the regulatory snafu that might otherwise subject mining waste to the trash tipping fee. Nobody ought to be interested in punishing Omya, and it seems ludicrous on its face to apply the same fee to rock from the earth as to household trash.

In the meantime, it is important to be careful with potential pollution from the processing of marble at Omya's Florence plant. A thorough look at the evidence will no doubt occur in future administrative hearings. That may be no comfort to Omya, but it is necessary to make sure that Omya's operation does not threaten the well-being of the company's neighbors and the water on which they depend. In the long run, keeping pollution within permissible limits will be good for Omya as well.