March 12, 2001

OMYA, The Truth, and the Public's Right to Know

by Annette Smith, Executive Director

Vermont has an international reputation of being perhaps the most environmentally conscientious state in America. However, reality may be considerably different from perception. As a Vermonter, how would you feel if you were to learn that one of your state's largest companies was also the largest users of pesticides, but said differently? As a Vermonter, how would you feel if your Department of Agriculture refused access to previously public records showing quantities of substances used by this company? Wouldn't you be just a little curious; maybe even a little suspect of the Agency and this company? Read on.

OMYA, Inc.'s plant in Florence, Vermont crushes marble into dust. Here's what they say about the process:
"Calcium carbonate is probably the most environmentally benign mineral you can put into anything. And the process of making it is just grinding. There's no chemical reactions we're doing, it's a benign process in the manufacturing." James Reddy, President of OMYA, Inc., Rutland Herald interview, October 9, 2000.

FACT: OMYA uses an increasing number of chemicals (biocides) to kill bacteria in their product. OMYA is the largest user of pesticides in Vermont. For the 5 years from 1995 to 1999, OMYA used more than 3 million pounds of active ingredients of poisons at their plant in Florence, or 61% of all pesticides used in Vermont. -- data from Vermont's Department of Agriculture, 2000.

The largest market for OMYA's product is the paper industry. Here's OMYA's position on the use of calcium carbonate in paper making:
"As part of the calcium carbonate process we don't use acid base any more and because of the high purity and the high brightness of the calcium carbonate, we don't have to chlorine bleach anymore." -- James Reddy, President of OMYA, Inc., Danby, September 26, 2000.

At the same time OMYA was saying their product has eliminated the need for chlorine bleach, the company was requesting permission from Vermont's Department of Agriculture (a condition of their Act 250 permit) to use chlorine bleach:
"In order to reduce the bacteria load at Verpol and we hope that we can reduce the use of other biocides in our finished products, we are proposing to use the oxidizer sodium hypochlorite (bleach)." -- Letter from Deborah Fahey Dufresne, OMYA's Manager of Microbiology, to Vermont's Department of Agriculture, July 20, 2000. Request repeated October 12, 2000.

Three times OMYA requested permission to use chlorine bleach:
"Mrs. Dufresne told me that in October she sent to the Department a request for the use of Sodium Hypochlorite which will lower the use of other Biocides. She already sent a letter on July 20, 2000 about this matter. She asked me to address the Department about this request, so that she knows what of decision the Department has made. She has not received any information concerning the use of Sodium Hypochlorite after two letters she sent, and she just wants to know if she will be able to use it or not." -- Vt. Dept. of Agriculture memo, December 11, 2000

FACT: The same memo shows that OMYA was already using chlorine bleach at the time they were requesting permission to use it:
"The company also uses Sodium Hypochlorite Solution (12T685 (metric)/month)." -- memo of Dec. 11, 2000 by the Vt. Dept. of Ag., Plant Industry Division. (12 metric Tons equals more than 3000 gallons per month of chlorine bleach).

What was the State of Vermont's response to the contradictions in OMYA's request and use data? Did they question these contradictions? Did they chastise them? No, they gave them permission to use the chemical they were already using:
"The Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food & Markets, has reviewed the pesticide [Sodium Hypochlorite Solution] for OMYA, Inc. and found that this is an acceptable use."-- Leon C. Graves, Commissioner of Agriculture, Food & Markets, December 21, 2000

OMYA has gone out of its way to portray the company as new and open, no more secrets:
"We'd like the community to know what it is we do, what it is we make, what the products are used for. We're going to get more people to see the plant and what's going on there." -- Jim Reddy, Rutland Herald, October 16, 2000.

It is hard to comprehend that in the spirit of openness, OMYA would claim their product is benign, there are no chemical reactions involved, and their product is eliminating the need for the use of chlorine bleach, while at the same time being the largest user of pesticides in the state, and requesting permission to use chlorine bleach while they were already using chlorine bleach.

But it doesn't end there.

FACT: OMYA has now decided to keep their pesticide usage from the people of Vermont:
"We're preparing our annual pesticide usage report. We would like to submit it as confidential business information." -- OMYA, Inc. to Vermont Dept. of Agriculture, January 12, 2001

"Because OMYA is a private entity, it claims the right to confidential treatment of its private information." -- Van Schweibert, OMYA Attorney to Vt. Dept. of Agriculture, January 30, 2001.

There is no evidence that any consideration whatsoever was given to the public interest when the state of Vermont granted OMYA's request for secrecy:
"It is the Department's conclusion that the pesticide information as presented by OMYA in its annual usage report constitutes a trade secret." -- Michael Duane, Assistant Attorney General for Vermont Department of Agriculture, February 9, 2001.

One company is using enormous quantities of pesticides after saying they don't use them in their process, and in clear violation of permit conditions. The state's response is to shut the door on the public's right to know. The company has spilled pesticides in their plant and had frequent spills of process waters into surrounding waters over the past two years and have been fined for their permit violations. During the same time period, they have added three new substances, without amending their discharge permit through the Agency of Natural Resources.

The use of chlorine in industrial processes is known to produce dioxin, a carcinogen. No evidence exists to show that anyone has evaluated the potential chemical interactions of the new substances OMYA is using. Public and private water supplies are now being monitored by OMYA's hired experts, but no independent evaluation is being carried out by the state or anyone else.

OMYA is not conducting business in our state in accordance with our laws and regulations. OMYA has repeatedly shown contempt for truth, the law and public health and safety, and now they want secrecy to keep the public from knowing the details about what they're spilling and spreading around the environment.

When a company says that it is not using toxic chemicals in its process, but in reality they are, then the people of Vermont are denied the protection of law. When our state government sanctions the use of toxic chemicals, after the fact, the integrity of the law is lowered and deformed.

You're a Vermonter. It's your state. What are your feelings about this situation? Do you believe that your state government should be working to protect you and your interests or just OMYA and their claimed secrets?

Previous Update: Testimony on Act 250

Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc., 789 Baker Brook Road, Danby, Vermont 05739
(802) 446-2094