Citizen Action Monitor

Adventure in courage: Ontario citizens determined to stop proposed US-backed quarry project in Dufferin County

No 286 Posted by fw, September 25 2011

Further to my July 16, 2011 post, Ontario citizens fight US-backed billion dollar quarry project in Dufferin County, rabble.ca has come through again with an update to this David vs Goliath tale. Here’s a reposting of rabble’s account, including a reader’s stinging rebuke of the Ontario NDP, Green Party and PC leader Tim Hudak for remaining silent on the issue. Sub-headings have been added to this post.

Melancthon quarry galvanizes opponents by Meg Borthwick, Sept 23, 2011

In 1830, a group of men set out from Hamilton, Ontario, to open up 32 hectares of land on a small Ojibway lake by Melancthon Township’s Pine River. They, and the small industries that came after them, were attracted to the water resources in what was soon to be known as Horning’s Mills. They built a sawmill, a grist mill, a frame house, and brought their families to settle and build this small historic community.

US-backed Highland Companies aim to blast prime Ontario farmland for limestone

I stood on the crumbling foundations of one of the original mills for which Horning’s Mills is named 180 years later, thinking about another group interested in the area’s resources. The Highland Companies, with the financial backing of the $23 billion U.S. hedge fund Baupost, has bought up close to 8,000 acres of prime Ontario farmland in this sensitive area, and proposes to blast a 2,400 acre hole into the region’s aquifer.

Mining project a serious threat to region’s drinking water

They’ll also have to pump out some 600 million litres of water that filters through the aquifer each and every day to keep that big hole from filling up with water from a complex, largely unmapped network of underground streams and rivers. Now why, you may ask, would anyone want to destroy an aquifer — the headwaters of five major rivers — and put at risk the drinking water of some 1 million people downstream?

Ontario’s Aggregate Resource Act (ARA) doesn’t require Environmental Assessment (EA)

In a word, aggregate — limestone aggregate to be specific — and there’s an obscene amount of money to be made by digging 200 feet below the water table to mine it. Aggregate mining falls under Ontario’s Aggregate Resource Act (ARA), which doesn’t require an environmental assessment.

Understaffed Ministry of Natural Resources can’t meet service demands

At this point, the Ministry of Natural Resources is so poorly staffed it can’t possibly keep on top of the compliance issues as dictated by the ARA, so without an environmental assessment, the project — and the billions of litres of water it affects — would proceed with little or no oversight from the provincial government.

McGuinty promises EA of quarry proposal but will he keep his promise?

Anti-quarry activists were cautiously optimistic when in early September, just weeks before the upcoming provincial election, the McGuinty government announced it would make Highland Companies subject to a comprehensive Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed mega quarry. The EA could take as long as three years, and will require consultation with the general public, First Nations peoples and the ministry, all of which must be documented.

“EA promise is pre-election politics” scoffs Ontario quarry industry

According to Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (OSSGA) President Moreen Miller, the decision to go with the environmental assessment is “nothing more than pre-election politics… the government has, once again, undermined its own land use approvals process and sent another message that will hurt business and investment in Ontario.” Not exactly an unbiased opinion, but that’s what one would expect from the head of Ontario’s quarry industry.

Local residents stand strong in opposition to quarry

“It’s just wrong” — One of the many farm families to be impacted by the proposed project is the Armstrongs. They’ve been farming in the area since 1853. “We’re trying to protect the future of farming for our grandchildren,” says Mary Lynn Armstrong. “It’s just wrong, for everyone. It’s really taken over our lives.” Local real estate values have plummeted and many, feeling backed into a corner, have sold to Highland and moved away. “We’ve lost so many people here. You can see it every Sunday in church, in town, at the arena,” says Mary Lynn. “We’ve lost five homes within two miles of our farm.”

Decry Highland’s intimidation tactics — Many historic farmhouses have been razed, burned to the ground under what many feel is a scorched earth policy designed to intimidate the local people. Those who have stayed on for the fight are very concerned by what they’ve seen already, and by what they can expect — 24/7 blasting and a relentless stream of truck traffic going past their doors, day and night.

Envisage desecration of spectacular landscape — Ralph Armstrong took time out from his busy livestock farm to take me on a tour of the region. At a hilltop property belonging to a friend, we were treated to a spectacular view of the land below — wooded, gently undulating hills and patchwork fields that are slated for open pit mining upon Ontario government approval. It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think that those thousands of acres of heartbreakingly beautiful land will become a massive 200 ft. deep hole the size of 2,000 football fields.

Threat to region’s wildlife — We also drove past a swathe of land where the grass has been cut short, manicured in a way that stands out among the fields and trees of Melancthon — it’s like coming across astroturf in the middle of the woods. “Bobolinks used to nest there,” says Armstrong, “but not anymore.” The bobolink is a protected bird that nests in tall grasses, and you can’t mine an area that is the breeding ground of a protected species. No small wonder that Highland has made it uninviting to bobolinks by hacking all the grass away from the nesting area. “They’ve been clear cutting trees too,” Armstrong says as we drive past what looks like a healthy wood lot. “They leave just enough trees around the edge to keep what they’re doing hidden from view, but we’ve got aerial photos that show what they’ve done. It’s shameful, absolutely shameful.”

Must prevent privatization of vital water resources — As we pass the one room schoolhouse that Ralph Armstrong once attended as a child, we can see “Stop the Mega Quarry” signs, one after the other lining either side of the road. I look and wonder how on earth Highland thinks it can get away with destroying this environmentally sensitive, beautiful land. How can they possibly think we’d allow a U.S.-backed company to control billions of litres of Ontario’s water? Well, they can’t, according to NDACT (North Dufferin County Agricultural and Community Taskforce) Carl Cosack.

Cosack, an organic beef rancher says, “It’s insane to allow private control over all that water. We can’t afford to mess with the headwaters — once the flow is changed, it can’t be fixed.”

According to one local politician, Highland has already tried to disturb the underground water flow, even though their aggregate license could be years away from approval.

A resident of Horning’s Mills, Nanci Malek ran for township council on the mega quarry issue. “They’ve already tried to redirect water flow on one of their properties, so I filed a stop work order.” Malek keeps close watch for any issues of non-compliance. “As long as they keep trying to screw up the water flow, I’ll keep filing stop work orders.”

Resolute residents determined and organized to “Stop the Quarry” — People are determined, and better organized than Highland Companies anticipated. “I’ll bet they thought, ‘what can a bunch of farmers do to stop us?'” says Cosack. Well, it would appear that both Highland and Baupost seriously underestimated the sophistication and determination of local farmers. “We educated ourselves on the issues, on the science and the legislation. Before this, none of us had a clue about mining or the ARA.”

Boston-based billion-dollar hedge fund backers send in spin-doctors to “manufacture consent”

In response to the increasingly well-educated and organized farming community, Baupost sent in the big guns. They replaced Highland spokesman Michael Daniher with über spin-doctors Hill and Knowlton. You might remember the public relations firm from the story about Kuwaiti babies in incubators being massacred by Iraqi soldiers at the start of the first Gulf War. Yes, THAT Hill and Knowlton (the story was later revealed to be a complete hoax, but by that time H&K had already successfully “manufactured consent” for Desert Storm).

Locals not backing down from US bullying

These are the kind of people the Melancthon farming community are up against, but that doesn’t faze Carl Cosack. “You can’t farm this land for generations without having a whole lot of backbone. This quarry is so fundamentally, deeply wrong, anyone can see it — it has to fail.” While nobody’s buying the spin of Hill and Knowlton or backing down from what they feel are the scare tactics of Highland Companies, there remains government legislation to contend with.

Post-election political support for EA in doubt

Getting an EA for the proposed mega quarry is certainly a victory, but many quarry opponents see McGuinty’s announcement as nothing more than a ploy to get re-elected. It wouldn’t be the first time a government flip-flopped on an environmental issue before, during and especially after an election. Local activists currently enjoy the support of their Conservative MP and MPP, but fear that the support could evaporate under a Hudak-led Conservative government (Tim Hudak has not yet come out with a position either way on the proposed quarry). Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is the only provincial leader who is vocally against the proposed quarry.

Activists will have their work cut out for them over the next few years, and it will take substantial effort to ensure that the EA is fair and accurate — regardless of the election results.

Astute comment from rabble reader —

Submitted by hitch on September 24, 2011 — I’d say that the only effective provincial political leader on this issue has been Lori Holloway.  She was instrumental in getting the Liberals to agree to an Environmental Assessment (EA) AND to review the Aggregates Resources Act (ARA) that governs quarries. She has figured out that this is an important issue in this riding and has made her Liberal colleagues understand this and work with her. Now whether she can win the riding and then be able to follow through remains to be seen.

The NDP, like any 3rd party, can make all the promises in the world, but actually keeping them is altogether different. They have done nothing of substance to actually make anything happen – simply showing up and speaking empty words is not enough.  Further, their business-environmental stance in the North is in direct contradiction to any anti-quarry stance they may claim to have. Sadly, the ARA is legislation of which they know very little.

The Green Party will not get a seat and are simply a distant voice from the wilderness on some environmental issues.  Their candidate, while a good man, wasn’t even aware of what the implications of the Aggregate Resources Act were.

Most disappointing, while incumbent Conservatives Sylvia Jones (MPP) and David Tilson (MP) have talked the talk, they have done nothing to get their respective leaders and parties onside.  Jones couldn’t get a commitment from her leader, Tim Hudak, to speak out one way or another on the issue, let alone to support an EA or a legislative review of the archaic ARA.  Tilson can’t get federal Environment Minister Peter Kent to agree to a federal EA, nor can he get Stephen Harper to even comment on the issue.  Incredibly ineffective work within their own parties.

RELATED READING

“It is apparent, that with respect to these particular applications, the interest in protecting the natural heritage and cultural resources of the subject lands and those surrounding them outweighs the interest in making the aggregate resource on the subject property available to supply aggregate mineral needs.”

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2011 by in environmental activism, grassroots planning and tagged , , .
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