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Swiss mine raises protests in Vermont

Residents fear that a quarry will disfigure Danby Four Corners Valley (Peter Miller)

The Swiss mining company, Omya, is facing fierce protests over its plans to dig a quarry in the American state of Vermont.

Environmentalists say the mine will scar a scenic valley, destroy valuable wetlands and lead to heavy traffic on narrow, mountain roads.

Omya says it is aware of its ecological obligations and that the marble, mined at Danby, will be used in a papermaking process, which respects the environment.

The privately owned company is no stranger to controversy. In 1988, the 400 residents of Vingrau in southwest France began a losing ten-year battle against the company's plans to dig a quarry.

Paper profits

The mineral calcium carbonate is the key to the dispute. Found naturally as chalk, limestone or marble, the compound is used in paint, plastic, food and pharmaceutical products and has largely replaced wood fibre in papermaking.

For paper, the purest mineral is required and the Danby marble deposit fits the bill.

"Marble-based products have a lot of advantages for the paper producer with a knock-on effect on the machines, the paper itself and the sewage plant," Omya's chief operating officer, Wolfgang Tegethoff, told swissinfo.

Besides saving money on wood fibre, calcium carbonate means brighter paper and therefore less use of the pigment, titanium dioxide.

The calcium carbonate process is also less acidic which means less wear and tear on expensive machinery as well as easier sewage treatment.

In Europe, some mills produce paper containing up to 58 per cent of Omya's marble-based mineral fillers.

Scenic view

The revolution in papermaking is little comfort to more than 1,000 residents of Danby Four Corners Valley, who are likely to be affected directly by the quarry.

"The main objection is that it's a completely inappropriate development," Annette Smith, Executive Director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, told swissinfo.

"The site is an extraordinarily scenic view used in postcards to market the state of Vermont and it is filled with huge quantities of pure water."

Local people fear that processing and pumping will deplete the local aquifer that feeds their wells.

However the company says it will be able to meet its processing needs from its own wells.

Heavy trucks

"Another major issue is transportation," said Smith. "There are eight ways to get the product out and they are all narrow, winding mountain roads."

Residents say that dozens of trucks will make the roundtrip daily from the new quarry to a processing plant about 40 kilometres away, passing through a string of small towns.

They are also concerned that the cost of rebuilding roads to accommodate the 40-ton trucks will cost the taxpayer millions of dollars.

Omya says it is too early to know exactly how many trucks will be involved.

The company already operates three quarries in Rutland County and provides hundreds of jobs in the region.

Omya believes that the Danby mine will be good for the local economy while opponents say that it will only create 25 new jobs at most.

Interfering with nature

Meanwhile Omya also has to deal with Vermont's Act 250, a strict environmental law designed to keep commercial development in check.

Tegethoff is optimistic that the company will meet local requirements.

"In 130 plants around the world, we respect the environmental regulations and the laws," he said.

"If you need calcium carbonate, you have to interfere with nature on a temporary basis but the mining is tied to very strict conditions and obligations.

"Our ideal, having exploited a deposit, is to restore nature for the generations to come."

However, communities in other parts of the world have encountered problems with the company.

In the French village of Vingrau near the Spanish border, residents fought a losing 10-year battle to stop a quarry, which involved court cases, sit-ins and even hunger strikes.

Meanwhile in Canada, environmentalists are concerned about Omya's plan to withdraw large amounts of water from the Tay River in Perth, Ontario, for its calcium carbonate slurry product.

Family affair

Omya, whose headquarters are at Oftringen in canton Aargau has 5,600 employees in over 40 countries.

The Schachenmann family, which owns the company, is one of the wealthiest families in Switzerland.

Across the industry as a whole, some 4.5 billion tons of calcium carbonate are mined annually.

Omya's worldwide production is about 25 million tons for its core sectors - papers, plastics and paint. The company's turnover was €2.1 billion last year.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Omya facts

Omya plans to open a marble quarry in Danby, Vermont.
Local residents are protesting on environmental grounds.
The marble is to be used in paper production.

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