Aggregate Mine Raises the Stakes in Ontario

A Personal Account of a Five-Day Walk to Stop the Mega-Quarry.

by Zach Ruiter 

Sidewalks peeled away into gravel streams between road and farmland as we journeyed for fivedays against the brewing current of a disaster upstream. We walked approximately 125 kilometres, starting at the Ontario Provincial Legislature on April 23rd, and ending at the site of the proposed Mega-Quarry in Melanchton Township, Ontario. 

Melanchton sits on prime agricultural land at the highest point in southern Ontario, in between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto. It provides the headwaters of seven important rivers, the Grand, Pine, Nottawasaga, Saugeen, Noisy, Boyne, and Mad Rivers. 

The Highlands Corporation proposes to quarry for aggregate the limestone that filters these waters, which flow into the drinking water of approximately ten million Ontarians. By their own application under the Aggregate Resources Act, the 2,300-acre quarry will be deeper than Niagara Falls and have to pump out 600 million litres of water a day. It is clear that our water is at stake. 

According to Highland’s 3,000-page application, there will be 3,600 truckloads out of the quarry per day. Adam Vanderzaag lives on his family’s potato farm across from the proposed site and he’s done the math: “It’s over 3,000 trucks a day in and out, over 6,000 trips going up Highway 24, it’s the only way out to Primrose and that’s as far as their traffic study goes… if you think about it, a truck every 12 seconds.” 

Highlands will use a liquid explosive called ANFO, or Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil, to mine the rock. By their own estimates, ANFO is 97% effective under dry conditions. Under wet conditions its efficacy will be drastically reduced, but to be generous, even at 97% the contamination adds up. With each of the 3,600 truckloads carrying 40 tonnes, this works out to 144,000 tonnes of aggregate per day. They expect to generate approximately 3,500 tonnes of aggregate per tonne of ANFO explosive. A daily 144,000 tonne haul will require more than 40 tonnes of ANFO. The unexploded 3% left over amounts to one tonne of fuel oil into the water table each day. 

Highlands is the venture of Baupost, a Boston-based hedge fund. Hedge funds do exactly what their name implies, hedging bets, maximizing profit and minimizing loss calculated on scenarios and contingencies. Highlands Corporation bought over 7,000 acres of farmland in the area under the auspices of potato farming. They have also made offers to purchase all the unused CN rail lines from Orangeville through to Owen Sound, where they can ship the aggregate across the world via the Great Lakes. If Highlands used the guise of a potato farm to apply for a quarry, it follows that they are prospecting water as a resource and would use the rail lines in the future to pipe the water out. 

Potato farmer and Highlands holdout, Dave Vanderzaag explains “The water is unique up there because it feeds our headwaters… Under our farm, the water table is only five to seven metres below the surface, we’ve got clean water, we’ve got tons of it, it’s very unique, we can irrigate out of those wells at 500 gallons a minute and the water doesn’t even move. This quarry site is about a thousand feet from my home and directly across from our wells.” 

Within this struggle is a complex set of social identities: corporate spokespeople, bureaucrats, farmers, activists, aboriginals, and landowners, just to name a few. With the growing conflict comes all kinds of potential for a misdirection of resources and effort, namely by those who represent the opposition and speak on its behalf. 

A few quick clicks over to the CAUSE (Citizen’s Alliance For a Sustainable Environment) website (http://www. citizensalliance.ca/Cause-Home.html), the group set up to stop the mega-quarry, reveals that they have framed the issue as one of protecting the water and fighting the degradation of agricultural lands, yet the CAUSE directors’ professional lives have almost entirely been devoted to the same modes of environmental destruction they now oppose. If we can understand the need for the quarry is to produce more material for roadways and concrete, we can have a look at who these people are: three commercial land developers, a PepsiCo exec, a management and industrial engineering professor, a head hunter, and a professional fund raiser. 

The best-case scenario is that these people are using NIMBY (Not-In-My- Backyard) arguments to oppose LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses) and may yet recognize that if it is harmful in our own backyards, it shouldn’t go into someone else’s. 

I bring up this issue not to vilify anyone’s participation in the struggle but to offer a picture of how the proposed “Mega-Quarry” has raised the environmental stakes here in Ontario. A local resident offered the following explanation, “I don’t think we can bite the hand that feeds us. This will take money to win and the CAUSE people are well connected to those with money. Unfortunately that is the way of the world….” 

Those connections are indeed needed: Ontario’s government demonstrates close ties to the development industry. The mayor of Melanchton Township, Bill Hill, wrote Premier McGuinty to express concern over the following statement by Minister of Natural Resources, Linda Jeffreys: “It is too bad that this has split your community apart. It is your job to get your community together, get them to think long term about rehabilitation, because this will not be going back to agriculture, but maybe you could get a nice golf course.” 

Danny Beaton, of the Mohawk Six Nations, Turtle Clan, put the walk together. Beaton had successfully fought against Site 41, a proposed garbage disposal site that threatened to contaminate the waters surrounding Penatanguishine, Ontario. He addressed the walkers, “Don’t ever forget who your allies are, don’t ever forget the sun is the first to come up from the east every morning, as soon as that sun comes up, we have that blessing, we give thanks, the sun can hear us, the moon can hear us, the earth can hear us, the water can hear us, the plants can hear us, only when we talk to it, only when we give thanks.” 

Where Toronto slides into the suburban, I interview Dr. John Bacher on a bridge over a concrete storm drain. He said, “This is the Black Creek, which has been encased in concrete because of what is essentially bad urban design. There is so much concrete in the city which causes all the storm water to rush off. There needs to be less concrete in the city and less demand for quarries.” Dr. Bacher is a researcher with the Preservation for Agricultural Lands Society. His latest book, Two Billion Trees and Counting; the Legacy of Edmund Zavitz, is a biography of Ontario’s chief forester responsible for educating the public on the need for reforestation. Zavitz’ work rescued Ontario from the wasteland that was left after its old growth forests had been clearcut. Dr. Bacher works against plans throughout Southern Ontario to expand major highways over productive agricultural lands. 

Along the route, blessings were given to the waters we crossed, until a mist overtook us at their source where a large Highlands Application sign looms over the landscape. Patricia Watts, Anishinaabekwe, spoke as the walkers and community members shared a feast: “This hurts me, those last four kilometres when I came on to Highlands, this property that is owned by these… S.O.B.s, it made me sick, it drained my body, it took every effort out of me to make those last four kilometres, but I pray to my Mother Earth, I pray to the spirits of the water, I pray to my spirit that walks with me, I pray to my Mishomis and my Nokomis, which is my grandmother and grandfather who I was taken away from when I was three, but they walk with me and they gave me the strength to continue on.” 

At the end of the walk, led by our Aboriginal Allies Danny Beaton and Patricia Watts, and Dr. Bacher, our accomplishment could be felt. People of different walks of life came together and broke the notion that nothing can be done to stop degrading Mother Earth. Spirits guided our every step toward realizing it is our water and our spring. 

***

Zach Ruiter is a an activist, filmmaker, journalist, and researcher at Trent University.

[From WS September/October 2011]

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