'We've been sold down the river'
Most Perth residents against minister's OMYA decision
Elaine O'Connor
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, February 16, 2003

CREDIT: Rod MacIvor, The Ottawa Citizen
Frank Roy, left, shown last June, says water levels have dropped for wells since OMYA began taking water from the Tay River.

PERTH -- Few shoppers lingered on the scenic streets of Perth yesterday as the cold that had long frozen over the town's canals forced all but the hardiest souls indoors.

But inside the shops, residents were boiling mad at the news that Ontario's environment minister had allowed a multinational company to triple the amount of water it drains from their waterways.

They are afraid their community is being "sold down the river" and they feel powerless to stop it.

"There are those who would sell us out to the highest bidder," said Sheila Clark, who has lived on Christie Lake just off the Tay River all of her life and is outraged at the deal.

"This is mine as far as I'm concerned, so I really feel that we have been sold down the river."

Environment Minister Chris Stockwell bypassed the courts and the province's Environmental Review Tribunal Friday when he allowed Swiss-owned OMYA Canada Inc. to increase its industrial water consumption from the Tay River to 4.5 million litres a day.

Last February, the tribunal ruled that the company, which uses the water to mix a calcium carbonate slurry for products such as paper, toothpaste and antacids, should be restricted to 1.5 million litres per day.

However, OMYA pleaded its case directly to Premier Ernie Eves, saying it would discourage other investors from doing business in Ontario unless its request was granted.

"I really think it makes a joke of the whole environmental process," Tay River homeowner Wendy Laut said of the minister's decision.

"Personally, I think it's a real travesty of power. I'm concerned about the environmental impact, but I'm almost more concerned about the principle of environmental assessment that has been abrogated. That's the criminal part," said Ms. Laut, a member of the Tay Valley council who lives right on the river just outside of town.

She's frustrated with what she sees as the province's contempt for the town and its residents.

"What else are they going to do?" she said.

The Tay River Watershed covers an 850-square-kilometre area and includes 45 lakes. The headwaters of the 95-kilometre-long river are used as a reservoir for the Rideau Canal, and the town draws its water directly from the river, making it a precious resource.

Environmental activists are concerned the increase in water uptake will harm the ecosystem.

"Their water-taking up to this point has been from wells. and the consequence of that has been to reduce the water table level to the point where they've had to compensate neighbours for the fact that they've drained their wells," said Frank Roy of the Tay River Legal Defence Fund.

Now that the company has gained access to the river, Mr. Roy is concerned that lower river levels may increase the concentration of coliform bacteria in the river, and thus in residents' drinking water.

Cam Macleod of the group Friends of the Tay Watershed is concerned that such increased consumption could deplete headwaters in the Bob's Lake reservoir to such an extent that lake trout spawning beds could dry up and summer cottagers could find nothing but mud at the end of their docks.

Michael Smith, who has lived in Perth for 27 years, says water quality is already a problem in Perth. "Many people we know have filters because the water has such a poor taste," Mr. Smith said, adding he's concerned it may get worse.

"We have a very shallow, small river, but you're dealing with a very large international company which is obviously very powerful, and they're used to having their own way."

"I think it's corporate aggression. It's the money talking," said resident Susan Tannahill. "It's not a Canadian company, it's just here to take our resources."

But residents were also keenly aware of how much the town's economy depended on OMYA.

"OMYA is a pretty good company, and I think that they are conscious of the community," said Bill Bierworth, proprietor of the Hobbytown craft store on Gore Street East. "They put a lot of money in the community. Yes, I can see it affects the environment, but I think that they'll deal with the problems."

Said Tay Valley resident Jim Buchanan, a shopkeeper down the street: "If they do it the right way, I don't think there's anything wrong with it."

OMYA is the world's largest producer of ground calcium carbonate with more than 140 plants in 30 countries, including a quarry north of Perth at Tatlock. It pumps about $20 million annually into the Perth economy.

OMYA president Oliver Chatillon said in a statement yesterday the company is "100 per cent committed to environmentally sustainable economic development, and to working positively with all stakeholders in the community."