Liberals freeze OMYA water deal
Environment ministry to review how much water is available before allowing new permits

Dave Rogers and Kris Westwood
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, December 19, 2003

Permission for a Perth plant to draw 41/2 million litres of water a day from the Tay River is on hold after the Ontario government declared a one-year moratorium on new and expanded water-taking permits.

The announcement was met with glee from Perth residents, and dismay from OMYA Canada Inc.'s administration.

"I'm delighted with the moratorium," said Michael Cassidy, councillor for Lanark-Highlands. "I think it's the right move."

OMYA's permit to draw water has been the subject of a three-year appeal process, which early this year resulted in the permit being approved starting Jan. 1.

But yesterday, the Ministry of the Environment declared the moratorium in order to preserve water for public use until the province knows how much surplus water is available for industry.

OMYA head administrator Larry Sparks faced Perth residents at a public meeting last night to discuss the plant's operations.

"We are concerned about the moratorium," he said after the meeting. "We're concerned about the future of the water-taking as our many industries throughout Ontario."

Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky said the moratorium implements a Walkerton commission recommendation that public water supplies should be protected.

"This was a commitment that was made by Premier Dalton McGuinty during

the election campaign," Ms. Dombrowsky said.

"It is a first step for this ministry to begin to implement the Walkerton inquiry recommendations.

"We are in the process now of establishing water budgets throughout the province. It is only reasonable as part of that exercise to place a moratorium on any new or expanded permits, to take water until the exercise is completed."

Although OMYA's operations employ about 250 people in the Perth area, Sarah Earhardt, a water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, said that wasn't the issue at stake.

"When you increase water-taking, you don't increase the number of jobs," she said. "The jobs that are going to leave here -- there's other ways to use the water for job creation.

The moratorium applies to uses for products such as bottled water and OMYA's controversial production of calcium carbonate slurry near Perth, using water from the Tay River.

Ms. Dombrowsky said she agreed with the inquiry that the way Ontario issues permits is like "writing cheques when we don't know how much money is in the bank." She said the ministry needs to determine how much water is available in provincial water basins before it considers new permits.

Under OMYA's existing permit, the company can take up to 1.5 million litres of water a day from the river to make a slurry used in the production of paper, paint, wallboard, toothpaste, calcium supplements and antacid tablets.

Originally, OMYA's permit would have allowed it to increase the amount of water it draws from the Tay to 4.5 million litres a day, starting in January.

While residents living nearby complained the water-taking could limit the ability of the town to grow, OMYA Canada president Olivier Chatillon wrote to the former Conservative government in June 2002, threatening to warn European investors about doing business in Ontario if the company didn't get the water it needs.

After reviewing the appeal, the Environmental Review Tribunal limited the water-taking to 1.5 million litres a day, but the government overturned that decision and agreed OMYA should be allowed to take 4.5 million litres a day from the river starting in January, if the company could prove that it would be used, and under the condition it hold annual public meetings.

The moratorium bans new or expanded water-taking for:

- Beverage manufacturing, including bottled water and other drinks;

- Fruit or vegetable canning or pickling;

- Ready-mix concrete manufacturing;

- Aggregate processing where the aggregate and water are incorporated into a slurry;

- The manufacturing or production of products where more than 50,000 litres of water is taken daily to be incorporated into a product.

The moratorium will not apply to agriculture, aquaculture, nurseries, tree or sod farms, municipal water supplies and sewage treatment plants.

Permits that would allow expanded water-taking will be revoked and replaced with permits that freeze the amount of water that can be removed from a watershed.

The moratorium on new or expanded water-taking permits makes economic sense and would not discourage investment in Ontario, Ms. Dombrowsky said.

"I would expect that any company or business that wants to locate in Ontario would want to be certain of its water source," she said. "When a company is considering coming to Ontario, and knows what resources are available, that would be an advantage for them.

"This moratorium demonstrates good environmental stewardship on the part of the government. We hear from many industrial partners who wish to work with this government to be seen as good environmental stewards."

When asked whether the moratorium could prompt some extraction and processing companies to leave Ontario, Ms. Dombrowsky said such companies invest where the minerals are located and it would be difficult for them to move.