State exempts OMYA from solid waste rules

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(Host) OMYA got good and bad news at a meeting Thursday night with members of the public and the state Environmental Conservation Department. OMYA wants to build a 32-acre above ground storage facility to hold mineral wastes created at its calcium carbonate plant. Because it’s a mining company, OMYA had asked to be exempted from Vermont’s solid waste law. They got their wish.

But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the company’s project will probably still have to go through an extensive permitting process.

(Keck) At its main plant in Florence, OMYA pulverizes one million tons of rock a year to make calcium carbonate, an ingredient in: toothpaste, plastics, chewing gum, paper and even some high-end ceramics. But the process that creates calcium carbonate also creates waste products called tailings. OMYA churns out over a 100,000 tons of the stuff every year and what to do with it is causing some controversy.

About 25 people gathered in Pittsford Thursday night to express their concerns and find out what the state plans to do. Pittsford resident Muriel Lefevre lives near OMYA and says she wants some assurances that the tailings aren’t harmful.

(Lefevre) “I’m concerned about the health threat if there is one. I have children, I live here and I want to stay here and I want to make sure that everybody’s doing the right thing.”

(Keck) State toxicologist Bill Bress says the tailings, which contain minerals, calcium carbonate and trace chemical elements, do not pose a health risk. But some at the meeting, like Alyssa Schuren of the nonprofit Toxics Action Center, were wary.

(Schuren) “Let’s say this stuff is perfectly safe, that children can eat this, it’s as safe as can be. Does this decision to exempt these tailings mean that you can put this anywhere?”

(Keck) While state health experts say direct contact with OMYA’s tailings are not harmful, less is known about what happens if the material leaks into ground water. For that reason, Vermont’s Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeff Wennberg says OMYA will have to seek a damn permit to build its above ground storage compound as well as a permit to regulate wastewater discharge.

(Wennberg) “We want to be absolutely certain, that not only the rules are complied with but that the legitimate concerns of the neighbors and folks in the environmental community are addressed through those processes, which we have authority over and legally must require.”

(Keck) Steve Thompson, operations manager at OMYA’s plant in Florence, says he’s disappointed with the preliminary ruling but not surprised.

(Thompson) “I think the commissioner and his team were looking out for the public welfare and we support his efforts in that. Based on our science and our research that we’ve put into with testing around the site today, we feel comfortable that we can deal with the issues as they’re put out.”

(Keck) OMYA still has a chance to change the state’s mind. Wennberg is giving all parties two weeks to respond to his initial ruling before making a final decision on permit requirements.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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