Citizen Action Monitor

Stop the Mega-Quarry: Rural Ontario residents’ winning tactics against U.S.-owned hedge fund

Residents employ multifaceted campaign to thwart billion dollar quarry project

No 541 Posted by fw, August 5, 2012

rabble.ca contributor Meg Borthwick explains how Dufferin County residents are fighting back against Boston-based Baupost hedge fund to Stop the Quarry. (What follows is my slightly edited version, with added poster, of the original piece, focusing primarily on citizen activists’ “Stop-the-Quarry” tactics. To read the original, click on the linked title below).

Stomp the Mega Quarry: Ontario farmers fight back  by Meg Borthwick, July 31, 2012

What happens when you combine a group of hard-working agriculturalists with a threat to the land they love? You get a serious force to be reckoned with.

Stomp the Mega Quarry fund-raising event featuring radio personality and Canadian actress

Stomp the Mega Quarry was only the most recent event organized to raise funds and promote awareness of the fight against a U.S.-owned hedge fund that wants to dig a 200-foot deep hole in some of Ontario’s most bountiful farmland. As if this weren’t serious enough, the limestone, worth an estimated $14 billion, the Boston-based Baupost Group wants to gouge out of the earth, is an aquifer that filters the drinking water of over two million people.

Beginning at 8am this past Saturday morning, dozens of people aged 9 to 90 — including radio personality Dale Goldhawk and Canadian actress Mag Ruffman — participated in a 5-10km walk/run to support the efforts of Dufferin County residents to prevent a 2,400 acre hole becoming, at best, an eyesore smack in the middle of some of the most beautiful country in Ontario.

All kinds of rallies and all kinds of demands make the mega-quarry an election issue

According to radio host Dale Goldhawk, the wrongness of the mega quarry is a no-brainer. “We were contacted a year ago, so we looked into this strange project that was proposed in Melancthon Township,” explains Goldhawk. “Look at what’s happened since then. There’ve been all kinds of rallies, all kinds of demands that something be done, it’s become an election issue and it’s now triggered an environmental assessment.”

Emphasize creation of a “hole” in an “absolutely beautiful landscape”

The beauty of the landscape impressed Goldhawk, who completed the 10km route. “Absolutely incredibly beautiful countryside. To think that you would put the biggest hole in all of Canada in that location is atrocious.”

Emphasize invasion of an “outside agent”, negative impact on property values, huge environmental impact, and disruption to lifestyle

People came from all over Ontario to participate. Jon Urvanski and Jessica Lastuk drove three hours from southwestern Ontario to participate in the event. “I grew up around here,” says Urvanski.  “It’s an important movement, since our natural resources are at stake. Some outside agent is trying to come in and overtake them. My family has been living here for over 20 years. The project is lowering property values, has a potentially huge environmental impact, and will disrupt the lifestyle of so many in the community.”

Emphasize ‘best farmland in Ontario’, aquifer, and rustic rural lifestyle at risk

That disruption isn’t limited to the destruction of farmland and the aquifer that filters some 600 million litres of water each and every day. Hundreds of trucks will be hauling limestone aggregate along Melancthon school bus routes. Blasting into the aquifer will overwhelm the peaceful community with noise levels inexperienced by anyone in Melancthon. Dust and dirt from the blasting and the trucking will coat everything — including crops in the remaining farm fields.

Leslie Beech, one of many older women who completed the walk/run, is deeply concerned about the proposed mega quarry. “This is the best farmland in Ontario, and you can’t eat rocks.” Kathy Noonan, Beech’s running partner, has lived in the area for many years. “For me, the main issue is the water. And the beauty of the area. People should come up here and see the beauty here. The thought of it being destroyed is shocking. It’s appalling to me.”

Information counterpower another pivotal tactic

Donna Bayliss, an anti-quarry organizer and activist, says Ontarians need to have a say in what happens to the land. “I set up a booth at a local market, because people needed to know what was happening. I wanted to inform people about what was being done behind their backs. For me, it’s mostly about getting the information out.” Bayliss, a treasure trove of information about the major players, local geology and political strategy, believes the entire movement — including the successful lobby for an environmental assessment (EA) — will change the way business is done in the province.

Getting the environmental assessment was a major victory for the anti-quarry movement.

“Getting the EA is completely unprecedented. We’re also trying to get the Act changed. It’s 40 years old, and everything has changed since then.” In Ontario, you need an environmental assessment to build a house, but you can dig a hole the size of 2,000 football fields into an aquifer in the middle of prime farmland without any kind of assessment. “Forty years ago we weren’t really worried about where our food came from, Walkerton hadn’t happened. The technology for this scale of project wasn’t there, the infrastructure wasn’t there, so we need to change that law to adapt to the current reality.”

Citizens in other Ontario communities joining the fight against quarry activity

Melancthon Township isn’t the only community fighting against quarry activity. In Paris, Ontario there is a pit whose license has been dormant for nearly 40 years. Now the owners want to reopen the pit. During the decades of dormancy, development has moved residential housing much closer to the site than people lived decades ago, and local citizens are fighting against the revival of the license. In Tottenham, Ontario, the original owners of an aggregate pit were committed to returning the site to its original state. New owners have since taken over and they want to blast below the water table.  “There are a lot of places that are fighting back,” says Bayliss. “[The mega quarry] just highlights one of many concerns.”

Notorious PR firm meets its match 

While winning the fight for the environmental assessment is a major victory, many in the movement are talking about what seems to be a completely unprecedented victory over one of the most powerful and notorious PR firms in the world.

Less than a year ago Baupost brought in the big guns. They hired Hill and Knowlton (H&K), an American based international public relations firm, to spin the quarry issue into something less controversial. Anti-quarry activists were initially concerned because of Hill and Knowlton’s reputation, and with good reason. In the late 80s, H&K were hired by the Chinese government in the wake of the Tiannamen Square massacre to put a positive spin on what can only be described as a human rights disaster. A few years later, Hill and Knowlton were hired to create a fiction, namely Iraqi soldiers murdering Kuwaiti babies in incubators, to manufacture consent for the Gulf War. While not intimidated, the Melancthon community knew that they now had a seriously scary player.

According to a Melancthon town councilor, Hill and Knowlton probably figured that a group of farmers would crumble under their well-honed PR machine.  “They’ve met their match,” said one councillor for Melancthon who is an active supporter of the movement. “The reaction to any statement made by Hill and Knowlton was so negative, their campaign backfired on them.”

According to another activist I spoke to, H&K had no idea what they were getting into. Actively working for the Baupost Group for months, Hill and Knowlton beat a hasty withdrawal after being publicly flayed by people outraged by their arrogant assumption that a group of farmers, the general public, couldn’t possibly see through the spin.

After a flurry of scorn from the anti-quarry community, H&K fell off the radar.  “We haven’t heard from them in three months,” says the councillor.  “I don’t know what the deal is, whether they were fired, or quit in embarrassment, or what, but a lot of people are wondering why they’ve been silent for so long. The real thing here is they have to back off. They’re wrong, and we’re right.”

Ordinary people have had enough

That very simple, unvarnished statement has much in common with so many recent grassroots movements that have come into being because ordinary people are outraged, and indeed it seems to resonate in a way that inspires. It’s not complicated. We’re right and they’re wrong.

RELATED POSTS

  • Ontario citizens fight US-backed billion dollar quarry project in Dufferin County July 16, 2011 — STOP THE QUARRY!” That’s the rallying call to action. By any and all means necessary — including direct action — STOP THE QUARRY! Ontarians and fellow Canadians, unite in support of CAUSE, the Dufferin County citizens’ coalition at the centre of a fight to stop a duplicitous US hedge fund from ripping an open-pit scar on the face of our pristine Ontario landscape.
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