Quandary of a quarry in Vermont

Proposal for open-pit mine pits state's historical character against traditional capitalism

Standing by the curb, Lois Niles watches and listens to another 76,000-pound truck changing gears on her two-lane, rural road in Florence, Vt. The noise effectively drowns out conversation and shakes the cereal boxes in her kitchen. "This goes on all day," she shouts. "And the dust and dirt just flies. You don't dare walk on the road hardly."

What is in the 18 wheelers, and also in the cereal boxes, is calcium carbonate. Each day, dozens of trucks haul it away from a nearby mine to a marble crushing plant owned by OMYA, or Pluess-Staufer Industries Inc., a multinational corporation with headquarters in Switzerland.

Mrs. Niles's negative reaction to big trucks on her rural road in Rutland County is part of Vermont's newest confrontation between "character and capitalism." She knows OMYA is the largest calcium carbonate producer in the world and that the fine white powder is in toothpaste, plastics, paints, cleansers, tile, aspirin, newspapers, and even chewing gum.

But, hey, the trucks are noisy and shaking her house.

To many other Vermonters, OMYA is a welcome economic presence providing some 800 jobs in the region and operating three quarries in Rutland County. But at the beginning of the year, the company announced a proposal to mine a 23-acre calcium carbonate quarry in bucolic Danby. So pure and plentiful is the marble there that OMYA wants to mine it for 50 years. Many residents have risen up in protest.

If the proposal can meet state environmental criteria, some 40 roundtrips of trucks will begin moving along Route 7, six days a week traveling 23 miles from the new quarry to a processing plant and back, and passing through a string of small towns. Blasting will occur three times a week. OMYA estimates about 30 jobs will be created.

Critics were quick to respond to the proposal and predict an impact that could further diminish what they see as Vermont's ebbing cracker-barrel character and small-town quality of life. Pro and con letters in the county's newspapers argue all the fine points and vigorously call for attack or defense.

"Towns are being torn apart [when] OMYA comes in and offers to buy people out," says Michael Fannin, a stonewright and for 17 years a volunteer fireman in Tinmouth. "[OMYA] will drive wedges through our communities."

Critics say road repairs will rise with the cost borne by the small towns already strapped for cash. More trucks, even with low emission controls, mean more noise and pollution added to the logging, milk, gas, and water trucks already rumbling on rural roads. And property values, the critics predict, will tumble along the route.

OMYA denies the assertions, cites previous mitigation efforts on behalf of towns, offers to help with costs of road upgrading and maintenance, and points to its record of compliance with environmental regulations in Vermont. It says many studies are under way to determine the potential impact of the mine on towns, the environment, real estate, roads, and the economy.

But critics say after the pros and cons are hurled at each other, the bottom line is protecting Vermont's legendary character and quality of life.

"This mine will be a mile from my house," says Annette Smith, a small farmer and executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, "so I will feel it personally. My objection is that the [mine] is going to be highly visible, extremely noisy, and totally out of character with the use of the site. This is a time for the state, not just our little valley, to be looking at OMYA and asking, is this a company that is appropriate [here] now?"

The Rutland Economic Development Corporation (REDC) welcomes the OMYA proposal, as do many businesses in the county. Last year, OMYA paid $2 million in property taxes to 25 Vermont towns, and paid some $15 million in salaries to employees. OMYA is the second largest landowner in Vermont and owns some 2000 acres around Danby. It continues buying land and houses in Rutland County to create buffer zones around its operations.

At a packed town meeting in late September at a Danby Four Corners community center, James Perry, executive vice president of Pluess-Staufer, told some 250 people in the audience, "This is an important quarry for our operation, and important for the economy of Vermont. The balance is going to show that this [mine] is a positive impact on the entire area. Studies will bear that out, I believe."

But OMYA faces an uphill battle on several fronts. Two months ago, a poll by the state's media revealed that 60 percent of Vermonters want to restrict truck movement to protect small towns and villages, even though the state legislature relaxed the truck permitting process last year. Citizens want trucks restricted to corridors or new bypasses built for trucks.

Politically, the state encourages new business, but more often than not at the community level, many Vermonters retain an "us and them" protective attitude. Recently, Vermonters for a Clean Environment concluded a two-year effort across the state that stopped a proposed underground, 63-mile-long, natural gas pipeline and two electric generating plants. Gov. William Dean, at first in favor of the pipeline, backed off when nearly all of the towns along the proposed route voted against it.

To assess the possible impact of the mine on the towns, roads, noise level, real estate values, etc., OMYA says it has hired experts to do several studies, which will be part of the public application hearing, possibly before the year ends.

Recently, the Vermont State Supreme Court ruled against OMYA in a case brought by bed-and-breakfast owners in Brandon. They wanted to prevent more OMYA trucks passing through the town and ruining the ambiance. OMYA wanted a total of 170 daily roundtrips. The court said no, but raised the allowed trips from 85 to 115.

Despite the organized opposition to OMYA, the company has many supporters in towns and in the countryside.

A retired dairy farmer and his wife who sold their 200-acre farm to OMYA under a life-lease arrangement think opposition to the mine is misguided.

"Where were these environmentalists when we needed to have our milk prices raised so you could make a decent living?" asks the wife angrily. Noting that she does not want to be identified, she adds: "They have this attitude that the rest of us should eke out a living as best we can and be a happy little farmer." Her husband says, "It means jobs. Agriculture is fine if you got farms to agricult, but there ain't no farms left."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Perry reiterated OMYA's position. "We are doing a lot of studies and taking into account all the community concerns that we have heard to see how we can best mitigate their concerns. I'm not going to tell you we will do something." But he added, if the permit is granted, OMYA will open the mine.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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