Although the Ontario election is still six months away, the surprise candidate for most polarizing issue likely to turn the political contest into an emotional cliffhanger has already come to the fore.
A 6 billion tonne gravel “mega quarry” – second-largest in North America – has been proposed in what is now quiet farm and cottage country some 100 kilometers north of Toronto.
The go-ahead decision now rests with the provincial government, which lends the conflict between local citizens and absentee gravel pit owners all the elements of a David and Goliath Hollywood blockbuster, as well as a hornet’s nest of political issues.
To me, it’s reminiscent of the campaign to save the Temagami old growth forests in the year leading up to the 1990 election, one of the factors that changed the course of that election.
There’s something about these kinds of issues that make a choice a decision time. They lay values and power on the line. Last month, as I joined the group for the start of the march from Queen’s Park legislative buildings to the site of the open pit mine, I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of land grab is the kind of news we hear when imperial powers take away land from smallhold farmers in Africa, as if the only issue is exploitation of resources that local yokels have missed out on because of a hang-up about food.
There are two sides to the story. Leading the anti-quarry side are a host of respected environmental and justice organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation (anxious about threatened species of birds and fish), Council of Canadians (worried about future water scarcity), National Farmers Union (concerned about disappearance of prime agricultural lands), and local councilors of all political stripes (worried sick about the impact of noise and carcinogenic dust from continual dynamite explosions and heavy trucking). Some Aboriginal leaders (upset by this abuse of once-sacred land) also play an important role, and in fact led the well-publicized march against giving the go-ahead to the open pit mine.
Although big-name and national organizations are engaged, it’s the locals who got the movement started. An area that calls itself the Hills of the Headwaters, and is best known for Shelburne’s country fiddling jamboree, does not greet the blast from this kind of rock-busting concert as an eco- or agri-tourism opportunity.
On the other side of the story, the source of all this angst, is The Highland Companies, which presents itself on the web as “investment vehicle for a group of private investors based in Canada and the United States.” It wants to create “a diversified portfolio of sustainable local businesses,” the company web says, claiming to already be “the largest landowner, taxpayer, employer” and charitable donor in the ’hood.
Most references to the private investors lead back to the Boston-based Baupost Group, which manages 1.7 billion dollars in assets for the 40 families that control it. Media reports frequently refer to Baupost as a “hedge fund” operation, a screenplay writer’s dream for the anti-hero role in a mega-drama about evil absentee gentry.
Though the local anti-mega-quarry group has a predictable share of cottagers and weekend recreationists who cherish the area for its namesake “Hills of the Headwaters,” the provincial issue is more about Not in My Back Forty than Not in My Back Yard — less about the tranquility of the countryside than the vitality of one of the most fertile veggie-growing areas in Ontario.
Dave Vander Zaag grows 800 acres of potatoes on the farm across the road from the proposed mega-quarry, and can’t imagine how he’ll be able to carry on. The area has been blessed with rich soil and abundant water, very close to the surface. The water table is really an underwater lake, he says, and since water runs downhill, his and all farms in the region will see their irrigation water drained to a gravel pit blasted two hundred feet below the water table — the literal equivalent of Niagara Falls in terms of sheer drop.
There are two competing sets of resources in this contested terrain — one related to agriculture, and one to aggregates. As a result, the bracing pre-election issue is: which shall prevail.
In this conflict, agriculture and countryside are up against provincial laws that have caught them between the rock of aggregate and the hard place of obsolete legislation.
Since 1969, according to the Gravel Watch Ontario posting of a comprehensive review of Ontario laws by planner Mark Dorfman, the province has deemed that aggregate must be sourced “close to market,” a stand-alone piece of stupidity that would be laughed out of court if applied to uranium, computers, steel, coal or books — and cannot even be imagined in a modest way for an essential life-nourishing resource such as food.
As a result of this dogma about local gravel, aggregate can’t be brought in from regions that don’t face competition for agricultural uses – not hard to find in a province where 95 per cent of the land mass isn’t farmable – and can’t make use of recycled slag or crushed rock from mines and mills across the province. As a result, the aggregate industry has one of the lowest rates of recycling and re-use .
But cheap gravel – about eight dollars a tonne — underpins the road, highway, pavement, concrete and sprawl development industries. These are stakeholders the Ministry of Natural Resources — familiar with resources such as logs and minerals, which are due for exploitation, not water and soil, which are due for stewardship –usually serves, with barely a nod to citizen engagement or community engagement.
As a consequence of the protected status of local gravel pit owners, there is a token royalty, about a dime a tonne, that comes to the people of the province, even in an era when governments are desperate for new sources of cash.
Worse, no reused, recycled or alternative aggregate – a resource rich in employment possibilities and environmental benefit — can gain market share in this highly distorted marketplace, the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy argued in a strategic report on the industry released this March.
Although regional critics of the mega-quarry are prone to feature the natural and cultural heritage that will be disappeared if a mega gravel mine is established, Ontario’s future is more at stake than its past.
In a world where crises of peak water will soon dwarf problems of peak gravel, and where plentiful water can secure a rich farm-based economy, it is folly to lose 600 million litres a day of clean water to seepage into a gravel pit. Rainfall-reliant staple crops of grains are already climbing in price as a result of reduced yields resulting from the increased dryness and heat that come with global warming. Faced with a trendline of global dryness, it is daredevilish to risk a prime area for potatoes and other nutritious vegetables that can fill in for grains and serve the mass urban markets of southern Ontario.
“Eat my dust” may never be adopted as a slogan of the aggregate industry, but it could well be the legacy of obsolete laws that have been brought to the surface as a result of this dust-up.
(adapted from the original in NOW Magazine, May 19-25, 2011, and rewritten for readers outside the Toronto area)