Rutland Herald Commentary

Waste not

March 30, 2004

In Florence neighbors of Omya Inc.'s calcium carbonate processing plant have been engaged in an effort to assure that their water supplies and air are safe from contamination by the chemicals contained in Omya's waste.

For more than a year, Omya and its neighbors have been asking the state to answer a simple question: Does Omya need a permit to dispose of its waste? The process to answer that question has been anything but simple.

Omya uses large quantities of water, chemicals and oil to create a product. The process generates large quantities of waste and air pollution. Omya sought and received an exemption from solid waste permitting for disposing of 10 year's worth of waste - projected to be 32 acres, 80 feet tall - on its plant site in Florence. Omya's neighbors became concerned about the proposal and asked the state to reconsider the exemption after learning that the waste is being disposed of in groundwater, may create dust, and contains chemicals.

The state agreed to a reconsideration at the end of 2002, and in November 2003 the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation ruled that the waste poses a threat to public health and the environment and needs solid waste certification and a dam permit. Omya appealed that decision in December, and in February the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources decided not to make a decision and remanded the issue back to the commissioner for reconsideration once again.

Omya and its neighbors are now engaged in something called a declaratory ruling process, which, it turns out, has no rules. The commissioner's decision is scheduled to be made on July 1 after written arguments are made to a designated hearing officer. The result of this process will be appealable directly to the Vermont Supreme Court.

The commissioner's November decision that the waste must go through the solid waste certification process is what stands until some other decision is made. Omya has not requested a stay of the commissioner's decision. Omya should be proceeding with the solid waste application process while the declaratory ruling process is taking place.

Through its lawyers, Omya argues that the waste is not really waste, because it might be reused. Since Omya has been piling its waste on its site for 20 years and has planted trees in it, nobody seems to buy the argument that Omya intends to find a use for it.

The waste is 50 to 60 percent calcium carbonate. Given the volume of waste being produced, approximately 100,000 tons a year, incentives to recycle or reuse the material would be appropriate.

It turns out that those incentives already exist through fees established by the solid waste law, Act 78, which set up a program to assess fees that serve as incentives to reduce the volume of waste society produces. There is an application fee, a state solid waste franchise tax, and a Regional Solid Waste District fee.

The application fee pays for the program to administer the permit.

The solid waste franchise tax pays for recycling and reuse programs, the solid waste management assistance program, salaries for the program, and subsidizes shared enforcement by solid waste districts throughout the state.

The purpose of the Solid Waste District fee is to encourage recycling and reuse. The district also has the authority to require a financial instrument be put in place to cover the costs of cleanup of the site or closing of the landfill.

Based on the commissioner's determination that Omya's waste must go through the solid waste certification process, the fees applicable to Omya's waste total about $2 million annually. The application fee is about $75,000, the franchise tax is about $600,000 and the district fee is about $1.9 million annually.

Instead of moving ahead with compliance with Vermont's laws, Omya is seeking to have those laws changed. Omya is seeking to be exempted from laws that pertain to other businesses. Omya has had legislation introduced that would severely reduce the amount of the application fee and tax paid on its waste, and would strip the district of its authority to assess fees and require posting of a bond for cleanup or closure.

The fees associated with solid waste should apply to Omya's waste. Omya will not seek alternatives to piling waste in perpetuity, absent the incentives provided by the solid waste law. Two million dollars a year seems steep, which is exactly the point. Faced with those fees, Omya could instead invest the money in phytoremediation, which could remove the contaminants from the waste and result in a marketable product, or Omya could invest in producing a product such as concrete blocks that would eliminate the need to burden society with the long-term impacts of dumping contaminated waste into groundwater and creating a landfill as tall as an eight-story building.

Technologies exist to clean up and recycle Omya's waste, which the company claims is its ultimate goal. Omya's neighbors and Vermont taxpayers should not be responsible for cleaning up Omya's mess. Our legislators must assure us that they are looking out for the long-term interests of Vermonters and not succumbing to the demands of a multinational corporation.

Annette Smith of Danby is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.