Low level arsenic found in Pittsford wells near Omya plant

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(Host) For years, neighbors of the Omya manufacturing plant in Pittsford have tried to stop the company from dumping rock in open pits near their homes.

The residents say the waste rock contains material that could contaminate their water supply.

Now neighbors are more concerned because tests have found low levels of arsenic in nearby wells.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Omya operates a giant stone crushing plant in the village of Florence in Pittsford.

The company processes marble ore to make calcium carbonate. The white, chalky material is used in a multitude of products, including paper, paint and toothpaste.

But some of the Florence neighbors have complained about noise, air pollution and waste disposal. Omya dumps the leftover material in open pits and quarries on its site.

A citizens group called Residents Concerned about Omya met this week at the Pittsford library to get an update on the waste issue.

(Mears) “The bottom line is that the tests have shown that there is arsenic in the groundwater underneath the site at levels over the EPA standards for arsenic in drinking water.”

(Dillon) The group gets legal assistance from an environmental law clinic at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. Assistant Professor David Mears briefed the neighbors on recent chemistry and hydro-geology studies. The group hired the scientific consultants as part of a federal court case.

(Mears) “And they found arsenic in this well, which is drawing water from underneath what is called the Cane and Drake quarry. And they found arsenic in Well E way down here, headed toward Smith Pond.”

(Dillon) Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is considered a human health risk and suspected carcinogen. The EPA set the arsenic safety threshold in drinking water at 10 parts per billion to protect the public against long-term exposure. Two of the Omya wells had concentrations just above that threshold, while a third showed levels that were slightly below the EPA standard.

Umbert Rosato lives in Florence near the Omya plant. He wants the waste pits closed or sealed so nothing can leach through to the groundwater.

(Rosato) “Why don’t they just fix the problem? They know what the problem is, for example line the pits. Get it done with. Last thing I want to see is any business close down. It’s nice to have a business in town. But if you’re going to do it, do it clean.”

(Dillon) Jim Reddy is Omya’s president of North America operations. He points out that no one gets their drinking water from the wells where arsenic was found. And he says the EPA recently imposed stricter safety standards for arsenic.

(Reddy) “Most of the wells were extremely low levels, well under the new standards. And even the highest level that I saw that was determined was 12. The drinking water standard up until last year was 50. So it was well below the standard that existed up until recently when they just lowered the standard to 10.”

(Dillon) Reddy said the company does not use arsenic in its manufacturing. And he questioned whether the arsenic that was found comes from background sources in the rock.

(Reddy) “It occurs in most drinking water supplies. And it’s up to people with a little more expertise than me to figure out if it’s just the natural background in the ground, or what it is.”

(Dillon) Pat Parenteau, who directs the law school’s environmental law clinic, said the consultants investigated that question. Parenteau said the scientists did not find arsenic in the background environment. But he said they did find it in the rock waste piles near the wells.

(Parenteau) “It is in the tailings. It is in the groundwater. They’ve explained the mechanism by which it gets from the tailings to the groundwater. They’ve covered every angle you can think of to say this is the only explanation for why the groundwater is contaminated.”

(Dillon) Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said he just got the test results this week. He said he has not determined if the results will affect state regulation of Omya’s waste site.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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