In a groundbreaking alliance, the aggregate sector and conservation groups, led by Ontario Nature, make common cause on a green certification standard for gravel.
By Ray Ford
It has been a decades-long cold war, with some very hot engagements. But the struggle between Ontario’s $1.3-billion sand, gravel and stone industry and the people seeking to safeguard the province’s landscape, could, at last, be reaching a detente.
That may be tough to believe for residents of Dufferin County, where the application for a mammoth 937-hectare Melancthon Township quarry in the heart of Ontario’s potato-growing country (see “The big pit,” Autumn 2011) seems to indicate the conflict is scaling up. The bid elicited more than 2,000 objections, sparking marches and a tractor convoy, and inspiring Foodstock, a culinary demonstration sponsored by the Canadian Chefs’ Congress. This sort of opposition is not cheap, especially when donations come in $20 and $50 at a time. But North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce vice-chair Carl Cosack promises that if the quarry’s backers “are willing to go down to the wire, we’ll meet them, step for step.”
Yet even as new battles brew in parts of the province, potential for a new accord exists between industry and environmental groups – one that could result in gravel being extracted in a greener, more sustainable way without generating the kind of confrontation inherent in the present system. Taking the lead in the effort is the Ontario Aggregate Forum, founded by members of both camps in 2008. “We’re looking for a more systemic way of lessening the impact of aggregate extraction,” says Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature and the organization’s representative on the forum.
The forum hopes to have the basic outlines of a plan for greener aggregate extraction next year and has already hired consultants from Deloitte to scan the world for leading standards and practices. For Bob Patrick, president of the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE) and the coalition’s representative to the forum, the process could yield third-party environmental certification similar to that in place for lumber, paper, coffee and seafood.
If petroleum is the lifeblood of modern society, aggregates – including sand, gravel, stone, earth, clay and shale – form the bones. In 2009, the last year for which complete figures are available, Ontario’s pits and quarries produced 153 million tonnes of aggregates (almost 12 tonnes per person) for use in everything from roads, bridges and sewers to buildings and foundations, glass, paint, paper, fertilizers, even pharmaceuticals.
These resources take a heavy toll on the environment. Even with a sensitive rehabilitation after a pit or quarry has been played out, extraction is a permanent eviction for the plants and animals originally on the site. Then there are the problems with dust, noise, lighting and truck traffic, potential changes to the filtering and storage of groundwater, and carbon emissions. Every kilometre a gravel truck travels adds about 1.5 kilograms of greenhouse gases to the already burdened atmosphere.
“If you look at all the stresses on the landscape, aggregate extraction is significant,” says Schultz. “It all boils down to growth and urban sprawl, where we build and where roads are needed. Growth is the monster that needs to be fed.”
The fact that industry and environmentalists have come together to tackle these issues is a near miracle, considering that the two sides have spent decades, as Ron Reid of the Couchiching Conservancy says, “tossing bricks over the wall at each other.” Members of the forum are familiar with the sort of bitter, protracted and expensive dispute now taking place in Melancthon. When CONE and Halton-based Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources (POWER) teamed up to fight the 2004 expansion of Dufferin Aggregates’ Milton quarry, the $175,000 bill “basically bankrupted us,” Patrick says. Hobbled by debt and without the cash to maintain fulltime employees, “we’ve been limping along ever since.”
Industry has deeper pockets, but also larger bills. “We have to buy land on speculation and hope we can get approval” to mine it, says Ken Lucyshyn, another forum member and vice-president of aggregates and construction for Walker Industries, based in Thorold. His firm has spent more than $10 million on a quarry application in Duntroon and, after six years, has yet to receive a go-ahead. A delay of that length is not unusual for large and contested proposals that, like the Duntroon application, are appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the province’s land-use adjudicator. “When you go through a months-long OMB hearing and spend millions,” says Moreen Miller, president of the Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, “to me that’s a colossal waste of energy, money and time.”
Miller has been a driving force behind this new collaboration ever since she reached out to the environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2008. “We’ve had real opportunities to find common ground, but we never got to the discussion that would find it,” she says. “In the past, perhaps our approach was to say, ‘Here’s our position, like it or lump it.’ This time, we sent out an invitation that just said, ‘We’d like you to come and talk to us about aggregate management.’”
Twelve environmental groups were invited; six – Ontario Nature, CONE, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM), Nature Conservancy of Canada, Gravel Watch Ontario and the Couchiching Conservancy – took up the offer. On the industry side, participants included Miller, Lucyshyn and representatives from Lafarge, Miller Paving Ltd., Capital Paving and, initially, Holcim Canada, a member of the Swiss firm that now owns Dufferin Aggregates. (Holcim Canada left the forum in March 2011 and later announced its own green gravel program with Environmental Defence.)
Early meetings were “like a blind date, only one where you don’t have a very positive image of who you’re going to have a date with,” Schultz says. Participants debated such contentious issues as recycling, shipping and greenhouse gas emissions. They went on field trips to pits and quarries, as well as to rehabilitated sites. And they began to develop a rapport. At a field trip to a rehabilitated Lafarge pit near Mono Mills, threatened bobolinks swooped and arced over rippling grassland. The green crowd was delighted. “All the aggregate producers looked at each other and said, ‘OK, now I know what a bobolink is,’” Miller recalls.
“The encouraging thing was that everybody seemed to be civil, well-meaning people who were trying to find solutions,” Schultz says. “In some cases, we had to agree to disagree. In others, we need to invest time in learning.” One issue that has proven hard to resolve, for example, is terms for aggregate licences: environmental groups and local residents want firm “sunset” times for shutting down pits and quarries; the industry prefers the flexibility of being able to idle pits or adjust production to meet market demands.
Despite these disagreements, Schultz argues that the aggregate business is ripe for the kind of third-party certification that began in the forest sector in the 1990s. The most obvious example is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which places its stamp on forest products that are both environmentally sustainable and grown and processed for the benefit of local communities and First Nations. A similar program in the aggregate sector could set standards for taking into account the natural environment when selecting sites for aggregate extraction, approval and rehabilitation of quarries and pits, including guidelines for reducing energy use and carbon emissions, and recycling aggregates and construction materials.
Industry, meanwhile, sees certification as a way to offer a marketing advantage to progressive firms, reducing what Lucyshyn calls the “costs and uncertainties” of opening new operations for companies with a record of good environmental stewardship. Obvious markets for green gravel include governments (which already buy more than half the aggregates produced in Ontario) and contractors participating in green building programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
When Holcim Canada and Environmental Defence opted to draw up a separate certification regime, called Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregates (SERA), their decision raised the spectre of competing standards for green gravel. But Schultz sees a silver lining. As in the forest sector, where various standards programs fight for market share, Schultz says competing aggregates standards may “up the ante” for environmental protection. SERA executive director Lorne Johnson adds the competition also helps organizations develop more effective and practical standards and procedures, including audits. “There’s a tendency for an upwards harmonization of standards, not a downwards harmonization,” he says. “By having two standards to compare and contrast, nothing but good can come from that in terms of the long-term stewardship of the resource.”
Still, the two sides must work through some knotty problems before an effective certification system is possible. Unlike timber, aggregate is a finite resource. Stewarding it involves balancing conflicting demands. Take the tradeoff in deciding how close to the final market gravel should be produced: On the one hand, extraction in southern Ontario places more stress on an increasingly limited natural landscape. On the other, hauling aggregate from the hinterland could damage other, equally sensitive areas and, due to the longer truck routes, pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the latter scenario, “trucks are still going to be pounding the pavement through your community to reach aggregates farther afield. It’s a lose-lose option,” Schultz says. “Rather than make a beeline for a particular model, we’re doing our due diligence in terms of researching the various options out there.”
Another challenge with an FSC-style approach is the limited retail markets for aggregates. Sales to do-it-yourselfers are minimal compared with the demand from governments and contractors. And those buyers, especially government, are heavily invested in what York University associate professor
Mark Winfield labels a “policy of putting cheap aggregate close to the market.
“People have been trying for more than 40 years to bring about a change in the province’s approach to aggregates, with zero success so far,” says Winfield, who studied Ontario’s aggregate sector when he was director of the Environmental Governance Program at the Pembina Institute.
Certification may start nudging those policies in a greener direction, but government still has a role to play. “I don’t see certification as replacing what government does, or should be doing,” says the Couchiching Conservancy’s Reid. He argues that issues such as promoting rail or marine transportation, recycling and researching ways to make more efficient use of aggregates all require government leadership.
But the primary need – and a key factor in creating a lasting peace in the sector – lies in getting aggregate buyers to go green. “If the province was going to say, ‘We’re going to use green aggregate,’ you’d see the level of interest escalating,” Reid says. Schultz agrees that the big challenge for the NGOs is to push municipalities to see the benefits of green procurement. “There will be some ups and downs with this,” she predicts, and adds, “Ultimately, it’s up to voters to decide what’s important to them and for citizens to make their voices heard.”
Ray Ford is a freelance writer based near North Bay. His story, “Sanctuary for shorebirds,” appeared in the Winter 2010/11 issue of ON Nature.