October 29, 2003
Those who wondered what Governor Douglas meant by his campaign pledge to make Vermont's environmental permit laws more "business-friendly" should take a close look at what is happening in Florence, where a multinational corporation is angling for special treatment at the expense of neighboring families.
Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg has made a preliminary decision to exempt OMYA Inc. from Vermont's solid waste disposal laws. OMYA is a Swiss corporation that operates a calcium carbonate mining and processing facility in Florence.
The ore it mines does not, by itself, cause significant environmental problems. However, as the ore is processed, it picks up trace quantities of industrial chemicals and toxic substances, which could, under the right circumstances, leach into the groundwater and potentially threaten nearby drinking water wells.
Over the past 25 years, OMYA has dumped over 40 million cubic yards, roughly 3 million tons, of tailings in quarries on the property. Though this activity is clearly subject to Act 78, the state's landmark solid waste law, it has somehow managed to escape regulation for all these years.
Under the exemption that OMYA now seeks, the tailings pile will climb as high as an eight-story building on top of the existing waste, eventually covering 32 acres. Studies show that the existing tailings contain trace quantities of such toxic substances as toluene and acetone, which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. In addition, there have been spills of the pesticide OPP, another suspected carcinogen, that have contaminated the tailings.
Residents Concerned About OMYA is a group of Vermont families living within a mile of the mining operations, who are concerned about potential contamination of their water wells as well as dust, noise, and airborne contaminants. In support of RCO, Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic recently filed comments opposing Commissioner Wennberg's preliminary decision, and urging him to bring the facility into compliance with the solid waste act and other environmental requirements.
Commissioner Wennberg has no authority to exempt OMYA's mining operations from compliance with Vermont's solid waste disposal laws. Calling this mining waste "earth materials" is like calling sewage sludge "pudding." This waste needs to be stored in a certified solid waste facility and properly monitored and managed so that it does not contaminate air, land or water.
These old mining sites have a way of coming back to bite you. Just ask the residents of Strafford about the Elizabeth copper mine, which is now a Superfund hazardous waste site.
The citizens of Florence, and their children, will continue to drink the water and breathe the air long after OMYA has left Vermont. Whatever short-term gains are to be made by allowing this exemption will not overcome the impacts on present and future generations. Why saddle our children with yet another environmental cleanup liability?
The Douglas administration says it wants to promote jobs and business, but not at the expense of Vermont's priceless environment. In Florence, it has an opportunity to match actions with rhetoric. Governor Douglas should personally review this situation and urge his environmental commissioner to do the right thing by following the letter of the law. The good folks in Florence deserve no less.
Patrick A. Parenteau is director of Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources clinic in South Royalton