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.”

The politics of pits
Aggregates are a vital resource in construction-hungry Ontario, a province that has grown to accommodate more than 13 million people. The provincial Aggregate Resources Act reflects this reality by allowing quarry developers to bypass comprehensive environmental assessment requirements.

And yet every time a company applies for a quarry licence, opposition from environmentalists and nearby communities is swift and vociferous. Right now, battles like the one escalating in Melancthon Township are playing out across the province, costing the industry, municipalities and private citizens untold millions of dollars.

Kevin Thomason, on Ontario Nature board member, is a high-tech executive in Waterloo who describes himself as “a passionate advocate” for the environment. He believes that the regulations aren’t keeping up with construction activity. “At one time,” he says, “roads were paved once every 10 years and trucks could only carry a few tonnes. It was inconceivable to move gravel more than a few miles. Now,” he continues, “entire communities are decrying the loss of farmland, the dust and truck traffic. We need rules and regulations that cover the current realities.”

The David Suzuki Foundation’s John Werring agrees. “The system is ass-backwards,” he says. “The government should require the [quarry] applicant to go to the community before spending millions of dollars doing ‘comprehensive’ studies.” When bureaucrats tell a company to go ahead with environmental studies for a project on which it then spends millions of dollars, “the government has given the company the idea that the project is going to be approved,” says Werring. “All of this happens before the community has a chance to be involved.” Arguably, a quarry of this magnitude would never have come this close to realization had Highland been required to begin at the municipal level.

Thomason would like to see 150 small, sustainable quarries across the province instead of large operators coming in under false pretences. “In too many cases, these projects are sited in small communities with people who don’t have the knowledge to fight back, while the company has unlimited resources,” he says.

But even as the fight in Melancthon grinds on, there is hope that future quarries may follow a different process. On June 1, Ontario Nature and five other environmental nongovernmental organizations, along with the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, collectively known as the Aggregate Forum, announced the development of a certification program that will enhance standards of environmental stewardship and community engagement across Ontario’s aggregate industry.

Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, says, “We feel that it is critical for us to put in place a program that has the involvement and support of a broad group that reflects the consensus of a wide constituency of environmental, community, industry, and provincial and municipal interests. It is essential to have a process that communities can trust.”

The quarry effect
In Highland Companies’ application for a licence to operate a limestone quarry in Melancthon Township, Edmonton-based Stantec Consulting Ltd. reported its assessment of the potential impact of the pit on species in the region. Of particular concern to environmentalists are the bobolink and the Henslow’s sparrow – two species at risk known to nest in the area – as well as fish habitat, namely that of brook and rainbow trout in the Pine River.

John Werring, with the David Suzuki Foundation, reviewed Highland’s 3,100-page application in a 10-page letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources last spring. He concluded that the consultants’ report did not contain enough data to support their findings.

For instance, the consultants stated that bobolinks were observed in the area of the proposed pit, but contended that the numbers were “relatively low.” Werring counters that “all the consultants reported was that bobolinks were found ‘where appropriate habitat occurred.’ They do not quantify how much bobolink habitat is in the licensed area.” And, according to Jon McCracken, a biologist with Bird Studies Canada, “if the pit destroys grassland habitat, then that’s against the Endangered Species Act.”

Anne Bell, director of conservation and education for Ontario Nature, adds that the Endangered Species Act requires the developer to “agree to a set of conditions whereby, in the end, the species in question will be better off than before the development took place.”

The Highland consultants found no evidence of Henslow’s sparrows, Werring reports, but he’s dubious about the methodology used to search for the bird. “All the consultant did was to go into the field on two separate days in June of 2008 and broadcast a recorded song for, at most, six minutes at a few locations. Needless to say, they did not find any of these birds during these brief surveys.”

The consultants also asserted that the quarry would have no negative impact on fish habitat, says Werring. In fact, they concluded that the proposed mega-quarry would improve “the diversity, connectivity and function of the natural heritage systems in the area.”

“We question how these conclusions can be reached,” Werring wrote in his letter to the ministry. “The salient points I raised in my letter,” Werring explains, “are that they haven’t done a good enough job of identifying the fish habitat. The project should be subjected to a detailed environmental review.”

Emil Frind, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Waterloo, whose specialty is groundwater, is likewise sceptical. “Highland says there will be no effect on groundwater, and I think that is not true. They have no basis for claiming that. The water quality is not going to be the same; it’s going to be much worse.”
Cecily Ross