Provincial watchdog: Back off Tay River
No one can predict impact, official says
Dave Rogers
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Ontario's environmental watchdog said yesterday nobody knows enough about the Tay River near Perth to predict whether it can sustain the OMYA Canada Inc. water-taking that Environment Minister Chris Stockwell approved last week..

Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller called for water use planning on the Tay to determine how much water is available in the river and its tributaries and the amount needed for drinking water and irrigation. He said government monitoring of Ontario rivers has been inadequate and any decisions made about them now are based on guesses.

OMYA mixes water with crushed calcium carbonate to produce a slurry the consistency of mustard that is shipped throughout North America to produce paper, paint, wallboard, toothpaste, antacids, food products and calcium supplements.

Mr. Stockwell decided last week to allow the Swiss multinational to increase its water-taking in the river to 4.5 million litres a day from 1.5 million litres.

His decision overturned an Environmental Review Tribunal decision and bypassed a planned Ontario Divisional Court review.

Company president Olivier Chatillon wrote to Premier Ernie Eves and Mr. Stockwell in February 2002, threatening to warn European businesses against investing in Ontario after the environmental tribunal decision.

Mr. Miller said his role is to defend the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights, which gives everyone the right to participate in government environmental decisions.

"Ultimately the river will sustain this water-taking or it will not," Mr. Miller said. "If it sustains it, he (Mr. Stockwell) has made the right decision, but if during the next drought the river cannot sustain the flow required, the minister will be accountable for that decision."

Mr. Miller said there is "clearly some uncertainty whether the river can handle the additional water-taking or not." The amount the company plans to remove from the slow-flowing river would fill two Olympic size swimming pools daily and equals the amount of water used by the Town of Perth.

"The only way we will know is by following through and seeing what happens during the next major drought," Mr. Miller said. "There was no watershed approach to planning or source protection here.

"If the government had done a watershed plan there would be a lot more science and a lot fewer grounds for conflict. If the government moves quickly, it could do that (planning) within a year and within five years we could be doing watershed planning throughout Ontario."

Mr. Miller said water-taking permits should be allowed only after determining the amount of water that is available and how much is needed for essential uses such as drinking water and farm irrigation.

He said he is concerned that the province has drastically cut the monitoring of water flow, making it difficult to make good decisions on water-taking permits. He said without such data provincial authorities are just guessing at the volume of water in Ontario rivers.

Opponents of Mr. Stockwell's decision could appeal to the courts if they believe he made a legal error or regard the decision as profoundly unsound, but they would have to pay the court costs if they lose, Mr. Miller said. He added that option is probably not practical for Perth-area residents because of the high cost of litigation.

Mr. Miller is an officer of the provincial assembly like the Ontario Ombudsman or the provincial auditor. He has been sharply critical of Progressive Conservative government decisions that affect the environment.

In 2000 he delivered a wide-ranging indictment of the province's environmental record in a report criticizing everything from lapsed efforts to clean up the Great Lakes to inadequate monitoring of forest company logging activities.

In the aftermath of the Walkerton disaster, he wrote a special report that severely criticized the government for not monitoring groundwater supplies and allowing factory-farm operations that generate massive amounts of manure to locate unchecked.

OMYA's Mr. Chatillon said there was plenty of evidence from the beginning to justify the company's application to triple its water-taking.

Mr. Chatillon said the company's opponents never provided any experts who contradicted OMYA experts who declared that the impact of the water-taking on the river would be negligible.

Running dry: Tay's source at extremely low level, page C1