Grassroots push forces Ontario to launch environmental assessment

Many Ontarians felt a sense of, if not relief, at least accomplishment last week when the Ontario government (in the waning hours of its mandate) announced that the proposed “mega quarry,” which would be located on several thousand acres of land just northeast of the town of Shelbourne, in Dufferin County (quite close to Orangeville), would undergo a full environmental assessment process.

This was good news to all of the people who have given lawn space to “stop the Mega Quarry” throughout southeastern Ontario and, indeed, in the city of Toronto itself.

It’s also good news for the people who believe in the democratic process; who have raised sufficient concerns through public meetings on the proposed project, petitions, websites, and all of the rest that the government has decided it cannot just sit back and allow the project to happen without formal public input.

The developers of the mega quarry concept have hit on an idea which, while wildly unpopular in many quarters, is nevertheless a useful one.
They have purchased farmland, for more than the going rate in the area, in an area that is just outside of the Niagara Escarpment region, just west of the boundary of the Oak Ridges Morraine area and well north of the Greenbelt region.

The Niagara Escarpment area, the Oak Ridges Morraine and, most recently, the Greenbelt, are all governed by provincial legislation that has been set out to protect them from major (and, in some cases, even minor) developments and incursions.

The mega-project’s developers, however, have recognized that south-central Ontario, including Toronto, will continue to gobble up building materials, including aggregate, and it is now increasingly difficult to open a large source of aggregate (whether gravel or rock that can be crushed to various sizes to simulate gravel). The proposed mega quarry has a ready supply of both these types of aggregates.

The developer, Highland Companies, has managed to purchase a block of more than 7,000 acres (although a few local farmers refused to sell their farms to the company, no matter how high the asking price).

Because of its location (not far from Toronto and the entire Lake Ontario “Golden Horseshoe” region), it’s a good bet that the venture, if successful, will be lucrative in terms of billions of dollars.

Until last week, the Ontario government had been reluctant to grant an environmental assessment on the project because an active economy demands a supply of all building materials, including aggregates.

Highland Companies has applied for a permit to quarry (initially) 2,316 acres from which it would begin to extract (and crush into aggregate) millions of tons of limestone.

The interesting thing about quarries, as opposed to other major construction projects, is that they are (usually and almost always) not subject to the environmental assessment process.

This is no doubt because pits and quarries are managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and an aspect of its mandate is to ensure that Ontario has a ready supply of the aggregate to make concrete and build asphalt highways. Hence there is usually minimal public interference with the process to approve a new pit or quarry, other than the fairly recent licencing requirements.

But the friends and neighbours of the proposed mega quarry have made a sound case that the water table that feeds several major southern Ontario rivers (most notably the Grand River) could be unalterably affected by years of deep quarrying and the environmental assessment that the government has (reluctantly) agreed to will address these issues as well as the impact on other aspects of the regional environment, in addition to its impact on human lives. (The opponents of the project make the case that the relatively small area affected—7,000 plus acres––produces an an astonishingly high yield of potatoes: 50 percent of the potatoes consumed in the Greater Toronto Area.)

People will also be heard from in this process. Lots of people on all sides of the project.

The government of Ontario doubtless did not want to go this route, especially with an election in the offing.

But congratuations to those politicians and civil servants who woke up in time to recognize the enormity not only of this project but its possible consequences.

When a community and life-changing event such as this one comes around, Ontarians need the opportunity to be heard from and this is clearly something that should happen more frequently.