All the Marble

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The way Annette Smith sees it, Omya Industries is trying to blow up part of hertown. To be sure, it's not a very big part — just a few dozen acres on a 400-acre tract in the Vermont mountains where the company wants to dig a marble mine. Still, Smith, head of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, wants to stop it.

The way Omya sees it, Annette Smith is denying the world its calcium carbonate. That's pretty much all marble is, after all. Crush it down fine, and it becomes a powder pure enough to be mixed into food to boost its mineral content; be molded into ceiling tiles to replace asbestos; and serve as an environmentally friendly filler in medicines, paper, plastics and other products. Industry is clamoring for the stuff, and Omya wants to supply it.

That has been the big issue in Danby, Vt., for nearly three years, as a stare-down — sometimes a shout-down — plays out between environmentalists, led by Smith, and the Swiss-based, privately held Omya AG, one of the world's largest suppliers of calcium carbonate. The battle is far more nuanced than the familiar turf war between small-town preservationists and a megacorp. Omya seems more environmentally sensitive to this quiet corner of New England than many other companies might be. Most mining foes, who disapprove of digging almost as a matter of principle, agree that the product Omya wants to quarry is a relatively benign and beneficial one (though processing the stuff does involve the use of pesticides).

The town is not united against the mine; some allege that the fight is being led not by locals who grew up with the marble industry, but by "flatlanders"--newcomers from the cities — who don't want their sight lines or property values disturbed. "No one wants the Vermont marble industry to go away," says Smith, 45, a full-time activist and former artist. "But Omya is the wrong fit for Danby."

Whatever happens to tiny Danby, global Omya — with an estimated $2.5 billion in revenue last year — has reason to do business in the state. Vermont marble was once one of the construction industry's most highly prized materials, until steel-and-glass architecture pushed it aside. More recently, a host of new industrial uses has caused demand to rise. Omya maintains operations in 30 countries, including pits in six U.S. states. "The marble market has grown," says Jim Reddy, 58, president of Omya's U.S. division, "and we've grown with it."

Omya first arrived in Vermont in 1977 and today operates three mines and one processing plant in a necklace of towns near Danby. The company pays well, boasting average salaries roughly double the local median (though the number Omya touts includes the paychecks of well-compensated executives). Omya has also tried to respect indigenous businesses, hiring local truckers, for example, rather than bringing in its own. Vermonters appreciated this, and when Omya acquired a new 400-acre tract on the faceof Danby's Dutch Hill, its executives figured they had at least a fighting chance of being allowed to dig.

A fight was just what they got. It turned out that even if they weren't saying so, some Vermonters had had it with Omya. Part of the problem was the company's trucks, which rumble to and from the quarries all day long on two-lane roads built for country traffic, shaking windows, foundations and roadbeds. Then there's the blasting. Omya says it holds dynamiting to a minimum: just a couple of detonations a week, in late morning or midafternoon. But dynamite is dynamite, and when it blows it's hard to hide it. "I live 1,100 feet from a quarry," says Bill Church, 46, a machinist at the local General Electric plant. "Walls rattle; it's a real problem."

All of this, plus the white wound left when a mine is gouged out of a mountain, can only hurt property values. Carolyn Droge, 38, an artist who helps care for her elderly parents, tried to sell their airy, wood-beamed house overlooking the proposed mine site so her father could move closer to the hospital. A home that she believes should have sold practically overnight took many months to move. "Once buyers learned about the mine," she says, "they walked away."

For these and other reasons, Smith and her group decided to stop Omya before it could start digging, relying on a ferocious Internet, letter-writing and word-of-mouth campaign. The effort produced results: the company quickly retreated and has spent the past two years promising to come up with a way to better address quality-of-life issues.

One of the most vexing problems the company must tackle in Vermont is water. The extensive local marble deposits are shot through with underground springs that help keep whole stretches of the state hydrated. The risk exists that a badly placed mine could siphon away water and cause a large area to dry up. Omya is studying the problem by drilling test wells around the Danby site and measuring water levels as they change over the year. "We can proceed safely if the hydro studies say so," says Reddy. Smith is doubtful: "Some people worry that water in their ponds is already beginning to fall due to the mines Omya currently runs."

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