Cover Story: Wary of OMYA
October 5, 2002
Mining company faces rich vein of opposition in Danby and beyond
By BRUCE EDWARDS Staff Writer
Like a good salesman, OMYA's Jim Reddy is extolling the benefits of calcium carbonate to a guest at the Vermont Marble Exhibit, where the Proctor attraction has a section dedicated to the history and the uses of the white mineral.
Moving from one display to another, Reddy points to the numerous products made in part from the ground marble everything from the antacid tablets we take and the calcium-fortified cereal we eat, to the glossy magazines we read and the paint we use to spruce up our homes.
For Reddy, the president of OMYA's North American operations, the benefits of calcium carbonate as an environmentally friendly mineral are obvious, whether as a food additive or as an extender or filler in the manufacture of products such as paint, paper, plastics and pharmaceuticals. And no company knows calcium carbonate better than OMYA Inc., the world's largest producer of the mineral.
But the Swiss-based company (OMYA derives its name from “Les Omyats,” the nickname given villagers in Omey, France, where it opened its first quarry outside of Switzerland in 1890) has had its hands full in Vermont, where marble deposits are abundant and where the marble industry has played a significant role in the state's economic and political history.
Since buying the struggling Vermont Marble Co. in 1977, OMYA had kept a low profile, shunning publicity and quietly going about its business. But more recently the 118-year-old company, controlled by Max Schachenmann and his family, has run into mounting opposition that has stymied its ambitious plans to expand its operations in the state and beyond.
As the demand for calcium carbonate has increased, OMYA over the past 25 years has expanded its manufacturing plant in the Florence section of Pittsford. During the same time, the company has added to its marble holdings in Vermont by purchasing thousands of acres with quarries in Middlebury, Pittsford and South Wallingford. Today, according to the company, it owns 8,000 acres in 25 towns in Vermont. One of those towns is Danby, where the company owns 1,700 acres.
Nearly three years ago, OMYA's proposal to open a new quarry in Danby caused a stir in this otherwise sleepy Rutland County town of 1,200 residents, the adopted home of the late author Pearl Buck. Many have questioned the wisdom of a project with the potential, they say, to forever change the character of the town.
But the company's challenges don't end in Danby. OMYA has also run into a regulatory and legal dead end in its effort to increase the number of trucks that can haul marble ore from its large Middlebury quarry south on Route 7 to its Pittsford processing plant.
Standing on a secluded dirt road high above Danby on a recent sun-drenched afternoon, Annette Smith points to a clear cut several miles away that overlooks a lush green, pristine valley that is dotted with homes and farms. The view is so spectacular, Smith says, that the state uses a photo in one of its promotional brochures to attract tourists to the state.
And that's what leaves Smith and others amazed and concerned. For it's that 33-acre clearing known as the Jobe Phillips site that OMYA is eyeing as its newest source of marble.
"It's the ultimate sin," says Smith, who as founder and executive director of Vermonters for A Clean Environment, has led the opposition to OMYA's plans.
Born in Lewisburg, Pa., Smith, 45, has lived a somewhat nomadic life. A high school dropout who returned to school and earned two high school diplomas (one a GED), Smith graduated from Vassar College in 1977 with a degree in contemporary European history. Over the years, she's worked as a seamstress and woodworker (in which capacity she has crafted musical instruments). Before moving to Danby in 1987, Smith was employed as a caretaker for a wealthy family in Massachusetts.
Smith likely would have remained out of public view, eking out a living making wooden purses, teddy bears, jackets and copper garden furniture on her 52-acre sustainable farm on Baker Brook Road. But in the late-1990s, the prospect of a natural gas pipeline running through Danby from Bennington to Rutland turned Smith into an environmental activist rallying opposition to the project, which in turn led to the creation of Vermonters for A Clean Environment. That opposition in large part forced the project's developer, former Rutland County Sen. Thomas Macaulay, to abandon the pipeline proposal.
Unafraid to take on corporate giants like OMYA, Smith is a throwback of sorts to the protest generation of the 1960s. Often blunt in her comments, Smith has since turned VCE's primary focus to stopping OMYA from moving forward with its quarry in Danby. VCE's Web site is almost exclusively dedicated to OMYA, portraying the company's operations in Vermont and around the world in a less-than-flattering light.
Smith argues passionately that a new quarry in Danby would be ill-suited on aesthetic and environmental grounds, including the potential damage to nearby wetlands and on the flow of underground springs that serve as a source of water for residents.
“There is evidence that de-watering quarries lowers the ground water table. So we’re worried about our springs long term and our wells … our water supplies,” she says.
"Nothing at all about this seems practical or realistic," says a frustrated Smith, adding that she doubts OMYA could "design something that high up in this valley that isn't going to be aesthetically repulsive."
OMYA owns 700 acres in the immediate vicinity of the Jobe Phillips Quarry site, and that also worries Smith, who says there is no guarantee that OMYA won't expand the quarry beyond its initial 33-acre footprint.
Opponents also question how OMYA intends to haul the marble ore off the mountain ridge to its Pittsford plant. Although the company is still exploring transportation options, Smith argues that the winding, narrow, two-lane roads that lead from the would-be quarry were not designed to accommodate large numbers of heavy trucks. With Smith taking the lead, five neighboring towns with the notable exception of Danby have banded together to oppose the use of their roads by OMYA's large rigs.
Lynn Bondurant, who runs the 5,100-acre Smokey House Center in Danby, says the safety of the 120 children from Rutland and Bennington counties who attend the school for disadvantaged children on a daily basis is of critical concern. The kind of truck traffic contemplated by OMYA, Bondurant says, puts the children at risk.
"We have kids that come in from multiple directions buses and vans (that) are using all those narrow, winding roads,” Bondurant says. “Making sure the kids can be safe (is) potentially more of a challenge if there is the kind of truck traffic that was in the proposal to the town of Danby.”
Steve and Nancy Burzon also count themselves as among OMYA's adversaries, though they hardly put themselves in the category of being anti-business.
Nancy is a retired telephone company executive and Steve is retired from a career in magazine publishing in New York City. In 1998, they bought their dream house a 1790 two-story white colonial, complete with pond, on 50 acres.
But what the Burzons say wasn't disclosed to them at the time they purchased their $500,000 home was that the OMYA quarry site is directly across from their property.
"I don't like to be seen as anti-business," says Nancy, a former GTE and Verizon executive, who is involved in the Rutland business community. Her husband echoes those sentiments, but Steve makes it abundantly clear that he believes that a quarry with its crushing, blasting and truck traffic has no place in picturesque Danby.
"There are places where you can do that and there are places where you don't," says Steve, pointing out that Danby is increasingly becoming a second-home and retirement community.
Faced with the prospect of having a quarry for a neighbor, the Burzons are trying to sell their Tinmouth Road property, but so far without success. They say potential buyers are scared off when told of OMYA's plans.
Home sales, however, have not come to a screeching halt in town far from it, says Town Clerk Janice Arnold. She says sales are brisk with a number of homes selling at or above their appraised value.
But Realtors familiar with the town say property near the proposed quarry site or truck routes is sure to suffer, making homes more difficult to sell at asking prices.
Danby is hardly united in opposition to the quarry. OMYA has its supporters, who view the quarry as a source of at least a few jobs and as a way to increase the town's tax base.
Town moderator and political consultant George McNeill believes all the angst over the quarry is premature. In fact, McNeill is convinced that given the regulatory hurdles, the quarry isn't likely to be built in his lifetime.
But regulatory obstacles aside, McNeill says OMYA has a record of being a good neighbor in town, quietly supporting community events and organizations.
For years, OMYA operated the former Vermont Marble Co. underground quarry in the town. Today, OMYA leases the quarry to an Italian company, which continues to quarry marble blocks for buildings and monuments around the world.
McNeill also doesn't try to hide his disdain for Smith and others, who he says really aren't interested in a civilized discussion.
"The people that I've seen at these meetings are not longtime residents of Danby. They're not people that, in my opinion, want reasonable answers," he says. "They're more like, ‘Let's (raise) the rhetoric.’"
OMYA's North American headquarters occupies the former Vermont Marble Co. offices in Proctor, directly across from the marble exhibit and the former fabricating plant.
Sitting at a small round table in his fourth-floor office, Jim Reddy projects a far different image of a company that over the years has gained a reputation of being a reclusive multinational giant.
Outgoing and media-savvy, the 58-year-old Springfield, Mass., native was brought in more than two years ago to replace John Mitchell, a man who made sure the company stayed out of public view as much as possible.
Under Reddy, OMYA has embarked on an aggressive public relations effort to transform the company's image from an island-unto-itself corporation to one that readily donates time and money to community causes.
Reddy is a seasoned veteran of the company, spending the past 10 years as head of OMYA's California operation in the environmentally sensitive Mojave Desert. During that time, he says, he worked with environmental groups to address their concerns.
"What I found was in my usual experience, if you sit down and you meet with someone who has legitimate environmental concerns and certainly there are legitimate environmental concerns you try to figure out how can we reach some common ground here," says Reddy, who describes himself as an avid hiker, camper and skier.
The key, he says, is protecting what needs to be "legitimately protected" and structuring the company's business plans accordingly.
Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University and an MBA from Northwestern University, Reddy has had that philosophy tested since coming to Vermont.
While OMYA initially had hoped to file an Act 250 environmental permit application for its Danby quarry by now, the company has put the project on the back burner, preferring instead to focus its efforts on taking its trucks off the road by building a rail spur from its Middlebury quarry to the main rail line. Asked about the Danby quarry, Reddy says the Middlebury project is his first priority.
The company's decision to develop the Danby quarry predated Reddy's arrival in Vermont. And Reddy concedes that in hindsight the company may have gone about the proposal the wrong way. He says that premise was based on the company's previous experience in opening other quarries during its first 15 years in the state.
"There was a certain engineering-type mentality to come up with a nice design, propose it, and it will be approved," says Reddy. "OK, well, that's not quite the way things are done today."
What was proposed initially for Danby, he says, was a "concept-level" proposal, and not a complete plan.
"Right now we don't have a concept ... for two reasons. One of which is most of the same people are the ones working on the Middlebury (rail spur), and as far as I'm concerned that's our No. 1 priority. We have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the state and our first obligation is to concentrate on that."
At the same time, Reddy says, the company continues to work on studies related to the Danby site, including matters relating to economic impact and hydrology.
Reddy is keenly aware of the concerns expressed by Smith and others. But before those concerns can be addressed, he says, the appropriate studies need to be done.
He also emphasizes that quarrying has had a long history in Danby.
"I believe that Danby is a special place that historically has resolved issues related to quarrying," Reddy says, adding that the company will work with residents to resolve the tough questions.
But he acknowledges that the bottom line is coming up with a proposal that can meet the 10 criteria of Act 250, the state's land use law. In the end, Reddy says candidly that the company may not be able to meet that threshold.
"Since we have not yet found the magic solution, anything is possible," he says. "And if we don't find a solution that we believe will meet it, then we won't submit something that we can't meet."
From an environmental standpoint, however, Reddy boasts that calcium carbonate is an environmentally friendly product that is being used more and more as a substitute for more harmful additives.
"I think our environmental story is fabulous," he says.
As an example, he points to the use of calcium carbonate in the manufacture of paper that saves thousands of acres of trees and in paint, eliminating the need to use lead.
For those who worry about the impacts from a quarry, Reddy argues that one needs to look at the big picture. "You have to look at the total environmental balance, and that's what we're doing," he says.
Smith and VCE haven't confined their criticism to OMYA's potential plans for Danby. Smith has also questioned the company's environmental record, pointing to several spills over the years of waste water at the Pittsford plant that violated the company's state water-discharge permit.
She has also zeroed in on OMYA's use of biocides, which are used as a preservative to prevent mold from forming in its slurry (semi-liquid) product during shipment. Smith likes to point out that biocides are classified as a pesticide, making OMYA the largest user of pesticides in the state. An accident at the plant in 2000 involved 4,500 gallons of biocides.
But Reddy says changes were made two years ago to improve environmental oversight at the plant and that the company is recognized internationally for its efforts at being environmentally responsible.
A state official who monitors enforcement of water discharge permits says that while the state has taken enforcement action against the company, the spills presented no health risk. "There was no environmental harm of any lasting nature that we could discern," says Brian Kooiker of the Wastewater Management Division.
Concerning the biocide spill, Kooiker said that spill was contained within the plant and did not enter state waters.
The $350 million, 118,511-square-foot plant is less than a mile from the Otter Creek and Smith Pond.
Pittsford Town Manager Jim O'Gorman says the town has had a good relationship with the company. "We work with them on issues whether it has to do with roads or health or safety issues. They're very good about notifying us about any situation."
That's an opinion at odds with some residents who live near the plant and its adjacent Hogback quarry. Although he lives two miles from the plant and quarry, Andy Snyder says he can feel the vibrations from the blasting. Of more concern, he says, has been what he describes as the secretive way the company has gone about its business over the years, rarely sharing information. He adds, though, that the company appears more open since Reddy came on board two years ago.
But given OMYA's track record of spills at the plant, Snyder, a former state representative, says he isn't reassured that the Otter Creek and Smith Pond are safe from possible contamination.
OMYA's interest in building a rail spur in Middlebury was triggered by an Act 250 decision four years ago that limited the number of trucks that could haul marble ore from its 235-acre quarry to its Pittsford plant some 26 miles south on U.S. Route 7.
The limit on trucks was prompted by complaints from the owners of the Brandon Inn, Lilac Inn and Rosebelle’s Victorian Inn that large truck traffic and particularly the number of OMYA trucks along Route 7 through downtown Brandon was getting out of hand. The innkeepers complained that the noise from the trucks going through town every few minutes was damaging their businesses and harming the historic center of the town.
As part of its Act 250 application to expand its Middlebury quarry, the company had sought to double the number of roundtrips from 85 to 170 trucks a day. But the District 9 Environmental Commission sided with the inn owners and limited the daily number of roundtrips to 113 a day (later increased on appeal to 115).
OMYA then spent several years appealing the limitations on its trucking, arguing that it had as much right to use a public highway as anyone. But in each venue, from the state Environmental Board to the Vermont Supreme Court to federal court, the company's appeals were turned aside. The last appeal was rejected this year by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. The company has let the matter drop there, preferring not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
OMYA extracts 1 million tons a year from its Middlebury quarry. And although restricted to 115 roundtrips a day, the company has yet to reach that maximum, running on average 85 trips a day, according to the company. In addition, the trucking company that hauls marble ore for OMYA has been able to increase the tonnage of material shipped to the plant using newer trucks with a higher payload.
L.F. Carter of Pittsford has 14 new trucks in its fleet that can haul 60,000 pounds of ore, compared to the 48,000-pound capacity of the eight remaining older trucks.
At the same time OMYA was appealing the restrictions on its trucks, the company entered into more serious discussions about building a $16 million, three-mile rail spur from its Middlebury quarry to the main rail line that runs parallel to Route 7. From there, the company would ship the ore south to its plant in Pittsford.
The company has been working with state and federal agencies, Vermont Railway and the Conservation Law Foundation to come up with a viable plan for a rail spur.
"We've got lots of different interest groups, some of the key members of the state Legislature. Everybody is working together to try to find a resolution and find the best solution," Reddy says.
Cost and environmental challenges remain, however, including wetlands issues and how to put the spur across Route 7, says Reddy. He points out that because of safety concerns a rail crossing that runs over the highway is unacceptable, leaving either an overpass, but preferably an underpass, as alternatives.
Who will pay for the spur is another question. The federal government will be asked to kick in a large chunk of money as part of the region's overall plan to upgrade the Route 7 rail corridor. The plan includes the relocation of the downtown Rutland railyard, which would free up land for development.
The Conservation Law Foundation has been at odds with OMYA over the years, questioning the company's commitment to finding a rail solution. But recently, says the CLF's Mark Sinclair, OMYA has shown a serious intent to move from trucks to rail.
"OMYA under Jim Reddy is serious about pursuing a rail spur," says Sinclair, the CLF's staff attorney. "I think they've tried to exercise some leadership in moving that project forward."
But Sinclair adds that OMYA is not as forthcoming about how much money it's willing to contribute to the $16.6 million cost. While the company would have to shell out an estimated $8 million to upgrade its plant to accommodate rail deliveries, Sinclair argues that OMYA should also be willing to pay a portion for the spur since the company will be the major beneficiary.
"I think they're going to have to ante up a significant amount of the cost," he says.
By Sinclair's calculation OMYA should pay one-third of the cost of the spur, with federal and state governments paying a third, and Vermont Railway paying a third. But he adds that the funding equation hinges on how much federal money is available.
And while the CLF has praise for OMYA's role in moving forward with rail to get its trucks off Route 7, Sinclair says any attempt by the company to move forward with a quarry in Danby is a bad idea that is not even open to consideration.
"OMYA should not underestimate the resolve of environmental organizations and communities," says Sinclair. "I think OMYA should take no for an answer."
"I made it clear to (Reddy) we are very willing to help him with his environmental and transportation issues (in Middlebury), but when it comes to the Danby situation, we will be around for as long as OMYA is."
OMYA's problems in expanding its business in Vermont have been a rallying point for the region's leading economic development organization, the Rutland Economic Development Corp. REDC has been the company's biggest booster, bemoaning the regulatory hurdles and strident opposition that has been leveled at the company.
To REDC's David O'Brien, OMYA represents a major employer that creates good-paying jobs jobs that are increasingly difficult to come by, particularly in the current economic climate.
O'Brien says it’s crucial for all concerned, state and local officials, and residents to remain open-minded about OMYA's plans.
"It seems to me we have to find a solution for the simple reason that this is a company that has taken the former Vermont Marble Co. business and brought it back to life in a different form," says O'Brien.
OMYA says its financial contribution to the state exceeds $55 million a year. That figure includes $2.7 million in property taxes, $40 million in goods and services bought from 175 companies in Vermont, and a payroll of 300 employees who earn an average of $52,000 a year, plus benefits. OMYA also claims another 100 subcontracting jobs owe their existence to the company.
OMYA is also the largest user of freight rail in the state and has 1,600 rail cars in use every day in North America.
OMYA pays Pittsford $1.5 million a year in property taxes, says O'Gorman, the town manager, who considers the company a good corporate citizen.
But not everyone shares the view that OMYA is a model corporate citizen. At what VCE billed as a Global Conference on OMYA held in June at the Tinmouth Community Center, French and Canadian opponents told a standing-room-only crowd that the multinational company uses bullying tactics and deep pockets to expand its worldwide business interests. They said the company often ignores the wishes of local residents who are affected by its projects.
Contemplating what could be a long and expensive fight ahead, Smith for an instant sounds a conciliatory note. "I'm not against OMYA. I'd rather work with them than against them."
But then Smith's olive branch quickly becomes a line in the sand that OMYA shouldn’t cross in Danby. "They will never get that deposit open. How many years will it take their bosses to realize that?"
[Bruce Edwards is the business editor of the Rutland Herald.