Ian MacLeod
The Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Stockwell used good 'science': MPP
Sterling says politics not a factor

Provincial cabinet minister and Perth-area MPP Norm Sterling says science, not politics, convinced the Ontario government to permit a Swiss company to triple the amount of water it can draw from his riding's Tay River.

Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell announced Friday he was overruling the province's Environmental Review Tribunal and bypassing the courts by agreeing to a demand by OMYA Canada Inc. that it be allowed to siphon 4.5 million litres of water a day from the river.

"I support him," Mr. Sterling, a former environment minister, said in an interview.

"There was never any technical information that I received that said that this was going to be harmful to the Tay River or the people who lived on the Tay River.

"Going back to my background (as a civil engineer), I prefer to rely on technical analysis.

"Often people who are not qualified might say, 'Well there may be a problem somewhere down the road.' I think you have to rely upon the best science and the best engineers that you have and say, 'We've got to deal with it in that context'."

Last February, after dozens of witnesses testified that taking too much water could lower the level of the river and lakes upstream, environmental tribunal ruled the company should take only 1.5 million litres of water a day.

Some cottagers and Perth-area residents had argued taking too much water could destroy fish spawning grounds, leave the town without enough drinking water and increase the concentration of pollutants in the river.

But a federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans study later concluded the water-taking would reduce the level of the river by only a few millimetres and have no adverse effects on fish.

After the tribunal's ruling, OMYA threatened it would advise international investors against doing business in Ontario unless it received the 4.5 million litres a day it said it needed from the shallow river. The company makes a slurry from water mixed with ground calcium carbonate for production of paper, paint, toothpaste, wallboard and other products.

Late Friday afternoon, Mr. Stockwell announced his decision, which came as a surprise to many and sparked a new round of complaints from residents and opposition politicians that the provincial government is meddling in municipal affairs.

Mr. Sterling bristled yesterday over that suggestion, and singled out a Sunday Citizen report -- headlined "Who's in charge here?" -- as being especially "off the mark in trying to portray this OMYA as an interference issue.

"Water clearly is a provincial jurisdiction; it clearly has nothing to do with local government," he said.

And Mr. Stockwell's overruling of the tribunal's decision is "allowed for in our laws, so he's well within his mandate. The provision wouldn't be put there if they didn't expect that the minister of environment would use that."

As part of the deal, OMYA consultants must report publicly on the state of the river. In the past, residents objected to river studies being kept secret.