Editor’s note: This commentary is by Annette Smith, of Danby, who is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
The recent dust-up between Omya and Vermonters for a Clean Environment shines a light on how corporations operate in our communities. The lessons VCE and Omya learned together during our seven years of ongoing engagement are instructive when Vermont communities consider how to deal with controversial projects.
The day after Thanksgiving, VCE received an email threatening litigation from the Swiss law firm representing Omya’s owners. It demanded the corporate owner’s names and two web pages that have been on www.vce.org for more than a decade be removed within five days. VCE faced unknown costs in defending itself against a wealthy, powerful company.
The legal issues raised by the Swiss lawyer were complex and a full defense would have required VCE to hire an outside attorney with expertise in international internet laws and the rights of private corporations versus First Amendment rights.
While VCE did not take down the web pages, we chose to protect the organization, removing the names as requested. We also had an interest in protecting our very positive relationship with a company we worked hard to bring to the table. We were not surprised when the company’s U.S.-based executives, once being made aware of the issue, called to apologize and withdrew the threat.
We were not surprised because VCE has gone from being fierce opponents of Omya to cooperating with them through a stakeholder process to address issues with the company’s operations that had resulted in noise, air and water pollution, and very poor community relations. Until that process began, the company had been hostile to neighbors, denying they caused any alleged impacts.
Through the community-based stakeholder process, initiated in 2005, this relationship changed. Omya’s North American president participated personally, generating meaningful change to the corporate culture (including changing employees in key positions) and environmental impacts were lessened. Together stakeholders wrote a request for proposal to address the scope of work we collaboratively developed. We interviewed three firms. To their credit, Omya went with the choice of the stakeholder group although the companies chosen were not the ones Omya preferred.
The recent victory of anti-wind Phil Scott over pro-any-and-all-wind Sue Minter speaks volumes about the failures of the Democratic Party to engage people from all points of view and bring people together.
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The scientists hired reviewed the site work that had been done, presented findings to the stakeholder group, and made recommendations to Omya. All the issues raised by the community were validated. As a result, Omya changed the chemistry of its ore processing, took unlined settling ponds out of commission, installed a multi-million-dollar dewatering facility and constructed a lined landfill. They continued to hire the group’s recommended hydrology and toxicology experts to advise them in the future.
A key point — the issues experienced by residents of Florence and Pittsford were not supported by their town or state government. There were no big votes, no politicians expressing outrage on their behalf. A small group of people stood up to a huge company, despite state and local governments supporting Omya, not the community members at risk. Three citizens — Bev Peterson, Ernie Brod and Emerson Frost — gave countless hours meeting with Omya and visiting the Agency of Natural Resources to hold Omya accountable. Their time and efforts deserve to be commended.
The phrase “vocal minority” has been used by renewable energy industrialists to claim their right to build everything everywhere. Sacrificing individuals and ignoring community input to save the planet is their playbook.
The renewable energy industry should learn from the experience of Omya and VCE. For seven and a half years, VCE has been asking wind developers to engage in community-based stakeholder processes. In 2011, the Department of Energy funded a workshop at Harvard Law School to teach wind developers about community-based stakeholder processes. VCE testified to the Legislature, the Electric Generation Siting Commission, the Solar Siting Task Force and the Act 174 PSB Working Group, advocating developing renewable energy through a collaborative process.
Gov. Shumlin has run the state as a private club, shunning VCE for six years. Instead of acknowledging that wind and solar developers and their projects are causing problems that need to be addressed, they have taken the Trumpian approach of declaring they are right and everyone else is wrong. Those who raise legitimate concerns are called “cave people,” creationists, ignorant, climate change deniers …
The recent victory of anti-wind Phil Scott over pro-any-and-all-wind Sue Minter speaks volumes about the failures of the Democratic Party to engage people from all points of view and bring people together. The tiny towns of Windham and Grafton successfully fought off a bribe-wielding multinational force that had set their sights on them. Residents went all out to defeat the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, despite their normal exuberance for that party.
It appears that at least some Democrats have not learned anything from the election. At a recent conference of renewable energy and climate change activists, Shumlin’s chief of staff Darren Springer said, “We must continue to work with like-minded people.” He doesn’t get it. That attitude is what has created the problems our towns, state and country are now confronting, as “sides” fight, refusing to work together.
VCE will gladly work with anyone. For the last year we have been positively engaged with Agrimark/Cabot over environmental issues surrounding their land application of their processing plant’s wash water, and as a result the corporation is adjusting their systems to make improvements.
Everything changes when people agree to work together. We invite the renewable energy industry and any others experiencing community conflicts to call us so we can help them cooperate, building the future we want — benefitting everyone, not just a few — without externalizing costs onto communities.
Omya and VCE created a collaborative model that we can learn from and build on. Now more than ever is the time to use it.