Tay water deal 'premature'

Not enough known about watershed to give OMYA licence to remove water, federal official says

Carrie Buchanan

The Ottawa Citizen
June 26, 2001

PERTH -- Federal officials believed Ontario's environment ministry was "premature" in granting a permit to OMYA (Canada) Ltd. last summer, a move that would allow the company to take more than 1.5 million litres of water -- daily -- from the Tay River, a senior Parks Canada official told an environmental hearing yesterday.

The permit was granted without conducting a full range of environmental impact studies, said David Ballinger, the senior Parks Canada official responsible for the Rideau Canal. He was testifying on the first day of an appeal hearing, at which eight individuals and organizations are challenging the permit before the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal.

Yesterday's arguments focused mainly on the paucity of environmental information gathered before the permit was granted.

"It seems strange that you would issue a permit before you had all the information. We normally issue the permit after the information is gathered," said Mr. Ballinger, whose jurisdiction includes parts of the Tay River and numerous lakes that flow into it.

The Tay River, which runs through Perth, and its attached lakes and tributaries in the Lanark Highlands and Rideau Lakes, are connected to the Rideau Canal. Water from the 865-square-kilometre Tay watershed is used regularly by Parks Canada through a network of dams and reservoirs to maintain water levels in the canal, Mr. Ballinger explained.

The OMYA plant and calcite mine near Tatlock are located in a part of the watershed under the jurisdiction of Ontario's Ministry of the Environment. Parks Canada was consulted, but did not have a final say on the permit granted last August.

The 10-year permit would allow OMYA to triple the amount of water it takes to 4.5 million litres a day starting in 2004, depending on the results of monitoring and environmental studies at the 1.5 million-litre a-day level. So far, OMYA's permit is in abeyance pending the outcome of the appeal.

A coalition of cottagers, full-time residents and the Council of Canadians is challenging the permit on several grounds. The appellants say the ministry failed to collect information about the possible environmental impacts of removing so much water from the watershed. And the Council of Canadians objects to the company's plan to ship most of the water out of the watershed. It argues that there could be implications under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

OMYA (Canada) Inc. operates a quarry that extracts and processes calcium carbonate, mixing it with water to form a slurry. The product is shipped all over North America to be used in a variety of products, from toothpaste to drywall.

The hearing opened yesterday with Brian Kaye, the environment ministry official responsible for granting the OMYA permit. He said the 10-year permit contains "numerous terms and conditions" and has two distinct stages. Only if the monitoring and studies required in the first three years show no ill effects will the company be allowed to take larger amounts from the river, Mr. Kaye said. And the company must cease taking water entirely if the flow drops below a certain danger level.

Mr. Kaye's reassurances didn't satisfy cottager Ann German, 83, who has been spending her summers on Bob's Lake since the 1920s.

It was then that she was first brought to the family cottage as a baby, in a laundry hamper.

"Our cottage was the seventh on the lake," Ms. German told vice-chairwoman Pauline Browes of the Environmental Review Tribunal, who is conducting the hearing.

Ms. German recalled severe dry spells in the 1930s, 1950s and most recently in 1999, when water levels dropped so low parts of the lake and river went dry.

In some spots, fish couldn't spawn, frogs and other aquatic life died or disappeared and cottagers extended their water intake pipes far out into the lake, she said.

Recently, water levels have been going down again, Ms. German said, and she doesn't believe it's safe to remove more from the watershed. "Millions of gallons a day, 365 days a year, is more than the upper levels of the Tay can stand," she warned.

"Let's find out if enough water is coming into the basin to refill it -- before we empty it."

David Taylor, chairman of the Tay River Watershed Plan, said his organization has spent several years drawing up a comprehensive study of the 95-kilometre Tay River and its tributaries.

But the watershed group wasn't notified or consulted about the OMYA permit, though it has a group of technical experts working on exactly the type of studies needed to assess its impact.

Those studies weren't finished last summer when the permit was granted, Mr. Taylor noted, and they still aren't finished