When The Highland Companies announced plans to build one of North America’s largest quarries on some of the richest soil in southern Ontario, farmers, citizens and local politicians dug in for a fight. In the court of public opinion, the quarry-busters seem to be winning.
By Cecily Ross
Norman Wolfson, a Toronto businessman, and his artist wife, Sandi Wong, spend most weekends at a windswept retreat they built seven years ago high on a ridge in Dufferin County. The home overlooks the rolling lushness of the Niagara Escarpment to the east and Melancthon Township’s vast counterpane of potato lands to the west. Wolfson well remembers the day a few years ago when a neighbouring farmer dropped by and told him that someone was buying up all the farms in the area. Somewhat apologetically, the farmer admitted that he, too, had sold. He got an offer he couldn’t refuse. “But,” he told Wolfson, “I realize now that they’re not just after potatoes.”
“He had tears in his eyes,” Wolfson recalls.
That farmer was turning his back on no ordinary farm. His land and the surrounding farms have some of the best growing soil in eastern Canada. Honeywood loam is named for a tiny hamlet in north Dufferin County just up the road from Wolfson’s place. According to the North Dufferin Agriculture and Community Taskforce half of all fresh potatoes consumed in the Greater Toronto Area are grown here in Melancthon Township, which lies at the highest elevation in southern Ontario. The rich soil also produces an abundance of cereal grains, hay and pasture. No wonder The Highland Companies, a Nova Scotia corporation operating in Melancthon, wanted to acquire some of this land in its stated quest to become the largest potato producer in Ontario.
In 2006, Highland began purchasing land in the area, offering farmers $8,000 an acre, at least a 30 percent premium on the market value. The company eventually amassed about 7,500 acres (2,630 hectares) in Melancthon and Mulmur townships. But Wolfson’s neighbour was right. It seems something is even more valuable than Honeywood loam up here, and that’s Amabel dolostone limestone. Underneath all that rich vegetable-growing soil lies one of the largest deposits of the highest-quality limestone in the province.
Highland is backed by a Boston-based hedge fund called the Baupost Group. On March 4, 2011, Highland filed a 3,100-page application with the Ministry of Natural Resources to develop 2,135 acres (937 hectares) of agricultural land for aggregate extraction. But this is to be no ordinary gravel pit. The magnitude of the proposed Melancthon quarry is staggering. The hole in the ground will be anywhere from 27 to 77 metres deep – which is one and a half times as deep as Niagara Falls – and well below the water table. The pit will span an area more than three times the size of the Toronto Islands. The quarry may have an impact on the headwaters and watersheds of five rivers: the Nottawasaga, the Saugeen, the Humber, the Credit and the Grand.
What’s more, the pit will lie on the western edge of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve inhabited by hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Indeed, thanks to ongoing development in southern Ontario, 40 percent of Ontario’s rare flora along with numerous at-risk species are preserved on the escarpment.
To mine the limestone, the company will have to pump 600 million litres of water out of the pit every day. That water will then be pumped back into the ground to resume its journey into the surrounding streams, rivers and wells. When the quarry is operating at its full potential, more than 150 trucks could be leaving and entering the area every hour of the day, with the attendant dust and noise.
The story is as old as that of David and Goliath: a small community of farmers and local politicians with no money pitted against a big, foreign-owned company with vast resources. What has ensued so far is a war of words and statistics, with one side raising the spectre of unrelieved environmental and social disaster, while the other paints a picture of prosperity, harmony with nature, and the joys of sustainable progress – a picture that most people up here just don’t buy.
On the day I visit Wolfson and Wong, we stand beside their beautiful home and look out over the ploughed fields spreading away to the west. In the far distance, I can make out a stand of wind turbines. Despite the controversy the towers have been generating over the past few years, they are beginning to look insignificant – small potatoes, in retrospect. Because, if things go according to Highland’s plans, in a few years the couple’s view will be obliterated by a mega-quarry, one of the largest in North America, belching clouds of dust into the sky, six days a week.
“We won’t be able to live here,” says Wong. “This was going to be our retirement. Now it’s mega-death.”