Mine Pits Two Green Goals Against Each Other in Town
A Scenic Town Fights Mine for Mineral That Lets Papermakers Use Fewer Trees
By LAURA JOHANNES
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 7, 2002
DANBY, Vt. -- The gently sloping mountain known locally as Dutch Hill rises above a lush valley and a white steepled church. The idyllic spot so captures the essence of old Vermont that the state featured a photo of it recently on Gov. Howard Dean's official Web site, with the caption "Time Stands Still Here."
But the serenity of Dutch Hill is threatened by what lies beneath its acres of green: a rich supply of the unusually useful mineral calcium carbonate. It turns up in crayons, car fenders, paint and many plastic products, as well as Cheerios, Cheez-Its and antacids. Its biggest role, though, has come with a change in the way paper is made. And Swiss mining company Omya AG wants to spend the next 50 years blasting away at Dutch Hill to extract the mineral.
In recent years, most papermakers have adopted a process that replaces much of the wood fiber used in paper with the white, chalky mineral. It makes for a brighter and longer-lasting, albeit somewhat limper, paper than the old-fashioned method did. According to Omya, about 15% of the more than 100 million tons of paper made every year is calcium carbonate.
The result: the mineral is now at the center of a difficult fight pitting two competing views of what's best for the environment. The number of trees that would have to be felled to replace the calcium carbonate in paper could number well into the tens of millions. Calcium carbonate is also used in smokestacks to neutralize harmful gases before they are released, and is a prime ingredient in lead-free paint and asbestos-free ceiling tiles.
Omya, facing a grueling review of its proposed mine under Vermont's strict environmental laws, is reminding residents and officials of these benefits at every turn. Jim Reddy, president of Omya's U.S. unit in Proctor, Vt., also says that while the company has no data on how many trees have been spared by using calcium carbonate in papermaking, the savings to forests have been "substantial."
On the other hand, Omya's weekly explosions would open a hole in the mountain -- although how big, unsightly and permanent a hole is a matter of dispute. Its 38-ton trucks would be plying quiet local roads daily and its water needs could threaten a supply already squeezed by drought and other demands.
"I thought paper came from trees, not from scenic mountains," says Annette Smith, a Danby resident who is leading local opposition to Omya. "Trees grow back. Scenic mountains do not."
The paper industry originally began to adopt calcium carbonate because manufacturers were concerned about cost and quality, not about the environment. The new papermaking process, developed in the 1950s by Omya and other mining companies, began taking off among European paper companies in the 1960s and 1970s because the wood fiber it replaced is scarce and expensive in Europe.
In the U.S., the change has been slower, in part because timber is more plentiful here. Domestic papermakers began switching to the calcium-carbonate process in the 1980s, and they continue doing so today. The reason, says David Dyer, a scientist at International Paper Co.: saving money both on wood fiber and on titanium dioxide, a pigment that makes the paper bright. Paper made with calcium carbonate is already so bright that less pigment is needed. It also won't yellow or grow brittle with time. In addition, the calcium-carbonate process is less acidic and therefore causes less wear and tear on the expensive machinery used in making paper.
Today, standard copy paper used in the U.S. contains as much as 20% calcium carbonate, Mr. Dyer says. That's still not as high as the 25% in Europe, in part because American customers have been concerned that the limper paper might stick in copy machines. International Paper, says Mr. Dyer, thinks modern copy machines can handle the limper paper. The Stamford, Conn., company is looking for more ways to increase the amount of calcium carbonate in paper without making it too floppy.
'Savior of Trees'
Allen Hershkowitz, an environmentalist who has studied the paper industry, agrees that calcium carbonate has many earth-friendly uses, including as a "savior of trees." But Mr. Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, says he believes the world's need for the mineral must be carefully balanced with the needs of Danby, population 1,200, which is itself a precious resource. "Traditional New England towns are fast disappearing. They have a social and economic value," he says. The people fighting the mine, he adds, are "doing us all a service by helping to preserve a slice of traditional culture."
Vermonters for a Clean Environment
Omya, a closely held company controlled by the Schachenmann family of Oftringen, Switzerland, is the world's biggest supplier of mined calcium carbonate and has benefited from rising demand. Global consumption has risen to about 27 million tons a year from about 20 million tons a decade ago, according to consultant SRI International. Omya had revenue of $2.5 billion last year, mostly from calcium carbonate.
For paper, the mineral must be pure and very white, attributes not easy to find. Much of the world's supply is streaked with impurities. Danby, as it happens, has an abundant supply of ideal, 98%-pure mineral. Thanks to its deposits of marble -- the form in which calcium carbonate often is found -- the town has had mines for more than a century. The local Vermont Marble Co. supplied stone to build such American icons as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. That mine is still operating on a small scale.
Omya, which acquired Vermont Marble in 1976, says it wants another mine because of the increasing demand for the mineral and its exceptional quality in Danby marble. Many in the region are in favor on economic grounds. Omya employs 300 people in Vermont, and says it expects a further 120 jobs would be created by the new mine. The local Rutland Economic Development Commission (www.rutlandrpc.org) believes the mine would create a salutary ripple effect throughout the region. An "I support Omya" bumper sticker is circulating around Danby and Tinmouth, the adjacent town.
Michael Fannin, a 52-year-old Tinmouth selectman who opposes the mine, pasted his own version on the back of his Chevrolet pickup truck, adding the words "I'm an idiot." Mr. Fannin says the company's plan would ruin Tinmouth, population 400, partly because its attractions are its rural charm, scenery and quiet. If Omya comes in and makes the area an "industrial conduit," he says, "people will start moving out and it will become a shadow of what it once was."
His worry is also financial. If Omya receives the state permit it needs for the mine, Mr. Fannin says Tinmouth would be legally obliged to beef up its winding roads so they could handle Omya's big trucks. That would cost the town about $6 million, he says, about six times the town's annual budget covering schools, fire services and two constables. He says the proposed mine has already eroded property values, which stands to reduce tax revenue still further.
Retired publisher Steve Burzon and his wife, Nancy, moved to Danby from congested Dallas four years ago, to a quiet enclave with a stunning view of Dutch Hill. Now, with the threat of regular explosions so close, their dream house is for sale. "Nobody even wants to look at it after they hear about the mine," Mr. Burzon says.
Omya first told the Danby select board in 2000 that it planned a quarry at the 23-acre Dutch Hill site it already owns. But local opposition persuaded the company to withdraw that proposal, and it is now putting together a plan that it hopes will meet residents' concerns. Omya has begun a yearlong environmental study of the impact the quarry would have on the neighboring fen, a marshy land rich in shrubs and mosses, including Carex schweinitzii, a grasslike plant considered endangered.
Omya also has to deal with Vermont's Act 250, a strict environmental law designed to keep commercial development in check. Under the law, most large commercial developments must get approval from a regional board, which assesses environmental impact and reviews any costs to local communities, such as damage to roads.
Water use will probably be a big part of the Act 250 review. Vermont has been suffering intermittently from drought for the past two years, says state hydrogeologist Robert Farley. Danby so far hasn't had any water restrictions, but 20 communities statewide are restricting nonessential water use, such as watering lawns and washing cars.
The company says it will be able to meet its greater processing needs from its own wells. But Omya may also need to pump significant quantities of water out of the mine site in order to keep it dry to extract the marble. After the mineral is extracted, it is finely ground and then sold either in dry form or as a wet mush, or slurry. Residents fear both the processing and pumping will deplete the local aquifer that feeds their wells.
Omya hasn't yet designed the mine, so it isn't clear if mining will be through underground tunnels, requiring a relatively small opening, or from the surface -- in which case Danby could be looking at a 23-acre crater. The company says it will try for a smaller hole if at all possible, in order to preserve the scenic mountain.
Vermonters have begun talking with groups fighting Omya's mines elsewhere in the world. At a recent "global summit" in Danby more than 200 Vermonters heard Renaud Chastagnol, the deputy mayor of Vingrau, France, describe how his town lost its fight to protect a mountain landscape.
Residents of the town of 400, not far from the Spanish border, argued that the Omya mine would deface their mountain, which is part of the scenic Corbieres range and that mining dust would harm their grapevines. Military police dislodged a group of protesters who had occupied the proposed mine site for six months. After dozens of court battles, Omya won the right to open the mine. Vingrau has taken its battle to the European Commission, but Omya's mining has already begun.
The residents of Perth, Ontario, population 6,000, told the Vermonters of a partial victory against Omya. The group, financed largely with the proceeds of sales of homemade coffee mugs, blocked Omya's request to remove 1.2 million gallons of water a day from the Tay River, which sometimes runs dry in spots when rainfall is low. Perth is about 100 miles southwest of Ottawa.
Earlier this year, the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal limited Omya to 400,000 gallons a day, a third of its original request. Omya is appealing the verdict to the Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Ontario.
Write to Laura Johannes at email@example.com