Woman Fights Uphill Battle Against Water Diversion

  • Upstream on the Glen Tay River in the Fall of 1999. Residents fought against a Swiss company (OMYA) who wanted to draw water from the river to make slurry for products like toothpaste and paper. (Photo courtesy of Carol Dillon)

In many communities, there are increasing demands for the limited supply of water. But people often feel there’s little they can do to protect that water from outside interests. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on one woman who fought to stop millions of gallons of water from being drained from her local river:


In many communities, there are increasing demands for the limited
supply of water. But people often feel there’s little they can do to protect that
water from outside interests. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on one
woman who fought to stop millions of gallons of water from being
drained from her local river:

(sound of crunching leaves)

It’s been a wet spring. But the leaves along the shore of the Tay River in Perth, Ontario
crunch beneath your feet.

Carol Dillon walks a path that was once submerged in water. She stops at a maple tree, and
points to a ring of greenish bark around its trunk.

“This is where the water comes to normally in the spring…
This was sort of the natural shore line, but the water has not
been this high, this would be the fourth year now.”

(sound of wind, crunching of leaves)

Carol Dillon and her husband, Mel, bought this piece of land in
1999. They came here to retire. Then, in the fall of that year, the Tay River dried up.

Four months later, they were shocked when a manufacturer applied
to take 1.2 million gallons of water out of the river every day.

“We simply looked out the window at this very dry river and
said, well how are they going to do that?”

Dillon soon found out they weren’t the only people asking that
question. Six thousand residents depend on the river for drinking water.
Another six thousand draw from wells in the river’s watershed. People worried there wouldn’t be
enough clean water during the dry season. And that wildlife would suffer.

(sound of truck)

An 18-wheeler pulls out of the OMYA plant in Perth, carrying a
load of calcium carbonate sludge. The Swiss company needs water to make the sludge, which
goes into products like paper and toothpaste.

They already draw about 400 thousand gallons out of the area’s
groundwater each day. But OMYA wanted to triple its water consumption so it could step
up production, with a promise of new jobs.

The public had 15 days to comment on the company’s plan.

As a consultant with the federal government, Dillon knew a bit
about bureaucracy. So she started helping out neighbors, who weren’t sure what they
could do.

“At one of the public meetings, a farmer stood up and said,
‘I’ve been a farmer on the Tay River for 40 years, but I don’t know
what to write in a letter to the minister.’ He said, ‘well, we have
to be careful with the water.’ And I said, ‘that’s your letter.'”

Dillon says she wanted to convince people that their voices do
matter. So she dropped off envelopes for them, faxed their letters, and
answered lots of questions. Before she knew it, she had kick-started a grassroots

“I was not a tree hugger in my life and I never was a
political person, either, but always believed in responsibility…
This is a democracy and when people have an opinion on something,
your government should hear it.”

People were inspired by Dillon. Jackie Seaton is one of the many who got involved.

“She simply spoke to the issue of water. If you’ve ever read
any of her memos or heard her speak at a council meeting, I mean
everybody can understand what’s she saying because it’s in the
plainest and simplest terms. And I must say that was very, very impressive.”

Typically, the ministry of environment receives fewer than 10
letters. But 283 townspeople wrote in to oppose the water taking.

Despite that, the ministry granted OMYA its permit.

The residents could appeal the decision to a quasi-judicial panel. But without money or a lawyer,
they decided it would be impossible.

Dillon, however, disagreed. She forged ahead on her own, and won the right to a hearing. She
relied on scientists who had retired in the community to help her prepare. It would be her word
against lawyers representing the company and the government.

(ambient sound)

Dillon pulls a thick plastic binder off a bookshelf that’s packed
with evidence used in the hearing.

She insists she wasn’t against the water taking per se. She just wanted the government to make a
decision based on good science. The company was granted the initial permit based in part on 75-
year-old data. Dillon argued more research needed to be done.

Over the past eight years, 46 community groups have challenged
decisions by the Ministry of the Environment.

No one had ever won – until now.

The panel granted the company just one third of the amount of
water it requested, with a potential for more in the future. And it directed the province to conduct
more research on the river.

“First, we were…it was unbelievable and then we were
ecstatic that it was all worth it.”

But the citizens’ celebrations were short-lived.

In April of this year, Ontario’s environment minister, Chris
Stockwell, reversed the tribunal decision and reinstated the full
permit. He cited new information that predicted the river would drop only
a few inches when the water was removed. The minister won’t comment on the outcome, other
than to say he stands by his decision.

But OMYA’s plant administrator, Larry Sparks, says the decision
was based on science. And while he recognizes that citizens have a right to question the
government, he says it shouldn’t come at the expense of business.

“And it’s very difficult to make
business decisions when you apply for a permit and have to wait three
years for approval and conclusion of the process. Our concern was not with the people, but rather
with the fact that the process was allowed to go on for three years.”

For Carol Dillon, the minister’s decision was a disappointing end to a
long struggle.

“You can have this two and a half year-long process and the
minister can just overturn it, politically, then what’s the point
of it all? So I’m back to where I started.”

(sounds by the river)

But Dillon hasn’t given up. Now she’s lobbying Ontario to adopt new standards for water use.
She doesn’t care if she has to write letters, battle lawyers or
lobby politicians – she just wants her community, and everyone in
Ontario, to have a say in the future of their water.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

Citizens Law Suits Endangered

Businesses and environmental groups are closely watching a case now
before a U-S appeals court. The case could mean major changes in how
environmental laws are enforced. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lester Graham reports: