December 5, 2002 Thursday Ontario Edition
$6 gauge at issue in water fight
Kate Harries, Toronto Star
Company questions MP's impartiality Slurry maker wants to draw more from river
A Swiss-owned multinational is accusing a former federal environment minister of improperly accepting a gift when she chaired a hearing into a controversial water permit application.
Pauline Browes, former Tory MP for Scarborough Centre and now vice-chair of the province's Environmental Review Tribunal, accepted a water flow staff gauge from a witness at a hearing last year into a bid by OMYA (Canada) Ltd. to increase the amount of water it takes from the Tay River, near Perth.
"Acceptance of a gift from a hearing participant was inappropriate conduct," the company states in an appeal to Environment Minister Chris Stockwell. "The giving and receipt of the gift raises a reasonable apprehension of partiality."
Browes refused comment to the Star.
"What it was was a memento," said gauge presenter Joe Slater, a member of a local cottagers' association that had opposed OMYA's permit application.
"I thought it was a fairly jovial moment," he said, explaining that it was a light-hearted gesture on Oct. 31, the last day of the seven-week hearing held in a community hall in Perth.
Slater, who gave expert testimony as a retired director of Environment Canada's water resources branch, said the gauge is a metre-long metal ruler used to calculate discharge volumes by measuring water level changes. It's worth about $6.
"I don't think by any objective standard it could have influenced her decision," said tribunal lawyer Joe Nemet, noting that the instrument was returned to Slater two months later.
"It was a joke," said retired schoolteacher Carol Dillon. The allegation by OMYA is an indication of the no-holds-barred nature of the controversy, she said. "It's win at any costs."
OMYA mines calcium carbonate from a quarry north of Perth and mixes it with river water to make a slurry used in paper, paint, plaster board and toothpaste. The product is shipped throughout North America.
The company has a permit to take 872 cubic metres a day from the Tay. In 2000, it applied for a 10-year permit to take up to 4,500 cubic metres of water a day, the same amount taken by Perth's municipal water system - with the difference that the town's water is returned to the watershed, while the company's water leaves as slurry.
Environment ministry director Brian Kaye issued a 10-year permit with 15 conditions and two phases: the first, for 1,483
cubic metres a day; the second permitting 4,500 cubic metres a day upon completion of more studies.
Local residents appealed, citing lack of data about the watershed, low water levels and recurrent drought.
Browes' decision, delivered in February, 2002, approved a six-year permit for 1,483 cubic metres a day and required more information for a larger volume. She also required the company to retain an independent environmental auditor and hold a yearly public meeting.
The company launched a political offensive.
"We employ 250 people directly and through contractors in Perth and Lanark and directly contribute up to $20 million annually to the local economy," company president Olivier Chatillon wrote to Premier Mike Harris on March 8, with copies to the whole cabinet. "However at this time, due to the extremely unfortunate ERT ruling we find ourselves uncertain about the climate for investments such as ours here in Ontario." Neither Chatillon nor OMYA lawyer Alan Bryant could be reached for comment.
OMYA launched a twin appeal of Browes' decision, one on policy issues to Stockwell, the other on matters of law to Divisional Court.
In a response to the OMYA appeal, the environment ministry's Kaye supported taking up to 4,500 cubic metres a day if the company demonstrates need and did not object to 10 years.
Dillon said Kaye's position is an about-face from the position he took in 2000 and at the hearing. "I was flabbergasted," she said, when she read his Nov. 15 submission to Stockwell.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association, which represents Dillon and other residents, also criticizes the ministry for not supporting a tribunal recommendation that a water budget be developed before taking more water.
Kaye is going against a recommendation by Walkerton commissioner Dennis O'Connor that source protection plans should, as a minimum, include a water budget, said the association's Ramani Nadarajah.
"The MoE change in position is all the more perplexing given that at the (Perth) hearing, all the MoE officials were in support of having a water budget to assess the quantity of water available prior to increasing the taking."
But environment ministry spokesperson John Steele said there's been no change of position. He said studies by the department of fisheries and oceans, which indicate the Tay can sustain the higher level of withdrawal, have satisfied Kaye's request for information.