OMYA's victory watered down
Ruling won't allow Perth company to draw more than 1.5 million litres daily from Tay River

Peter Zimonjic
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

OMYA will be able to draw up to 1.5 million litres of water daily from the Tay River, which runs through the heart of Perth.

A long legal battle over a permit to allow vast quantities of water to be extracted from the Tay River in Perth has resulted in a compromise that critics say will still harm the environment and set NAFTA precedents to pave the way for Canadian bulk water exports.

OMYA Canada Inc., a Swiss-owned multinational company, had a permit granted in August 2000 by Ontario's Ministry of the Environment to extract 1.5 million litres of water daily from the Tay.

In 2004, the permit would let OMYA move into Phase 2, which would allow the firm to triple its take from the river, to 4.5 million litres a day.

But in a ruling from Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal late yesterday, OMYA's Phase 2 was washed away and the company was limited to 1.5 million litres per day until 2008, when OMYA will have to reapply for another permit to keep extracting water.

OMYA officials refused to make formal comments yesterday, saying they are not sure if they will appeal the decision until they have had time to review the 85-page ruling. Included in the ruling is a long list of special conditions that OMYA must adhere to, including:

- A limit of 1,483,200 litres daily;

- Before OMYA takes any water, it must install a flow metre to measure the water taken from the Tay. If the meter breaks, OMYA must cease taking water until it it is fixed;

- In the event of drought, the ministry can reduce or suspend OMYA's permit to take water;

- If OMYA's activities hinder the ability of anyone else with a permit to use the Tay, OMYA will have to pay compensation or supply those affected with an alternate water source;

- The firm's activities cannot interfere with the natural functions of the Tay;

- OMYA must hold two annual meetings with local municipalities, conservation authorities and citizens' organizations to address concerns about water-taking;

- The company must also hold one annual public meeting to receive other public concerns.

OMYA mixes the water with ground-up calcium carbonate to make slurry, which is used to make paper, paint and toothpaste. The slurry is shipped all over North America in tanker trucks and rail cars and is about 25 per cent water, similar in consistency to mustard.

OMYA operates a calcite quarry about 35 kilometres north of its plant in Perth. When the company received the permit in 2000, residents who live near the quarry teamed up with residents who live near the river to appeal the permit. The Council of Canadians joined the fight.

One of the eight people who filed the appeal was former NDP MP Michael Cassidy, who has a cabin near the quarry. While Mr. Cassidy is pleased OMYA was restricted from proceeding to Phase 2 of the process, he still has concerns about increased truck traffic to and from the quarry.

"This is an important victory for community participation," says Mr. Cassidy. "The special conditions are sensible and will ensure there continues to be public scrutiny on this issue in the years ahead."

Sulyn Cedar of the Lanark County Citizens' Action Group is also pleased with the restrictions, but says the 1.5-million litre limit amounts to incremental degradation that will slowly destroy the watershed habitat.

"This ruling fails in a number of ways," says Ms. Cedar. "It only takes into consideration the effect on the ecosystem that lives in the water, but ignores the larger watershed and it doesn't address climate exchange at all."

Ms. Cedar says the climate change issue is key to the Tay watershed because, by 2008, a whole new set of environmental factors could unfold that the ruling did not account for.

Jamie Dunn, of the Council of Canadians, agrees with Ms. Cedar's view. But he is far more concerned about what this ruling means under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Council of Canadians has argued this permit was a precedent-setting case because by allowing OMYA to export such large quantities of water, Canada could be forced to allow similar rights to other international investors in the future NAFTA's controversial Chapter 11.

In the ruling, vice-chair Pauline Browes stated that water in this case is "not in its natural state" because the slurry is a manufactured product that contains water.