Federal officials review Tay

River permit Biologists measure impact to fish in watershed

Carrie Buchanan

The Ottawa Citizen
July 9, 2001

PERTH -- Worry and uncertainty prevail on all sides as an environment tribunal enters its third week of hearings into OMYA (Canada) Inc.'s permit to take millions of litres of water a day from the Tay River.

Company officials have sat nervously through hearings by the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal.

The company now wonders if a $500-million expansion it has undertaken at its Perth plant will go from asset to liability.

OMYA needs large quantities of river water to mix with calcium carbonate, mined in nearby Tatlock.

The mixture then becomes a slurry and is exported throughout North America for use in a wide array of products, from paper to toothpaste.

Until now, the company has used groundwater but it can't take more from that source.

On the other side of the issue, the eight appellants -- a coalition of cottagers, permanent residents and the Council of Canadians -- argue that OMYA will remove much of the water it collects from the watershed, which could result in environmental damage. The ministry didn't conduct enough studies, they argue, and those that were done didn't use an "ecosystem approach," as regulations require.

On top of ecological uncertainty, the Council of Canadians argues the permit is a precedent-setting case under the North American Free Trade Agreement. By allowing OMYA to export such large quantities of water, the council argues, Canada could be forced to allow similar rights to other international investors in future under NAFTA's controversial Chapter 11.

In the middle is Brian Kaye, the Ontario official responsible for issuing the permit, who has watched expert after expert pick apart his work. Sometime this week, Mr. Kaye is expected to testify.

But no matter what this tribunal decides, this is not the last major hurdle for OMYA. It came as an obvious surprise to hearing chairwoman Pauline Browes late last week to learn the federal government is conducting an environmental assessment into the project. Her hearing concerns a provincial permit, issued by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment last August, which allows OMYA to remove up to 1.5 million litres a day from the Tay River. That amount will increase to 4.5 million a day in 2004, if no adverse effects are seen during the first stage.

Late Thursday, federal fisheries biologist Brent Valere told the hearing that he is overseeing a federal process that has been ongoing for the last 16 months and won't be finished for several more. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans started the process because OMYA's water-taking involves a water-pumping device in the Tay River that fisheries experts have determined will create a "harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat."

The DFO is examining the potential impact on the entire watershed, he explained, because the pump could affect water levels and fish habitat. One of the federal studies, completed by independent experts hired by DFO in June, concluded that impact will be negligible, Mr. Valere testified. But other studies haven't been completed yet.

The federal environmental assessment also requires input from other departments, such as Environment Canada, Natural Resources, and Parks Canada. It's also possible, he added, that this "screening" level study could be followed by the appointment of a panel to study the issue in more depth -- a process that could take years. But that will happen only if the current round of studies uncovers significant potential damage.

Appellant Carol Dillon urged Ms. Browes to delay any decision on the provincial permit until the federal review is complete. But OMYA lawyer Alan Bryant urged Ms. Browes to continue the hearing and make a decision promptly.