by BETTER FARMING STAFF
Initial hearings concerning Ontario’s Aggregate Resources Act wrap up in Toronto this coming week but the politicians on the provincial legislature committee conducting the review have voted to introduce a second phase of evaluation that will involve travelling throughout the province.
The decision comes after the Standing Committee on General Government was roundly criticized by a group protesting the development of a 2,300-acre quarry on prime farmland in Dufferin County near Shelburne for scheduling the hearing during the spring planting season.
The committee members’ decision “is another unbelievable boost to the proper way of doing democracy and for all the people who engage in this when asked to,” says Carl Cosack, an organic beef farmer who chairs the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce, Inc. He says the committee decision to ask the house leaders for permission to extend the hearings and travel the province came after his group lobbied hard and obtained the support of groups and individuals who wrote to the committee’s chair, David Orazietti, Liberal MPP for Sault Ste. Marie.
Mike Colle, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources, says he anticipates the dates and locations of the meetings throughout the province will be established some time over the next several days. “We hope that we will have months of opportunity for people to participate,” he says, noting the second phase could continue until November.
Colle says there will be opportunity for groups and individuals to make presentations to the committee if it is permitted to go on the road. There are also plans to visit operating and retired quarry sites, and to explore how the legislation fits in with other provincial legislation.
Growing public outcry about The Highland Companies’ Dufferin County quarry proposal sparked the legislative review but any changes to the Act the committee might recommend won’t affect the quarry’s development. “Whatever legislation is in place when you initiate your application is what the review would be based on,” explains Dufferin-Caledon Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones, who sits on the committee.
The review she’s referring to is a full class environmental assessment, which last fall the Liberal government ordered the Highland proposal to undergo. It’s the first time a quarry in the province has had to undergo such an assessment, Colle says. The Ministry of the Environment is still waiting to receive suggestions from Highland about terms of reference for the assessment, notes Jones.
Cosack says his group is fully aware that any action taken from reviewing the Act won’t affect the Highland quarry proposal. Nevertheless, the group is committed to working with others to change aggregate policy in the province. Recent high profile conflicts concerning quarry proposals have brought recognition that “there has got to be a better way,” he says. “And somehow the megaquarry has touched something in so many people right across the province that that awareness and expertise that’s being offered. We’re trying to lever that expertise and the proper type of public engagement to change policy.”
Gord Miller, Ontario’s environment commissioner, was one of several people who made presentations to the committee this past week. According to Hansard transcripts, Miller advocated for allowing municipalities to have more say in the decision to grant permission to develop a quarry. The Act, he says in a telephone interview Thursday, is primarily under provincial control although municipalities do have some influence through zoning. With municipalities being the quarries’ “biggest customer,” they are unlikely to “cut themselves off,” he says. “But clearly a lot of the issues are planning related issues and a lot of friction we’re seeing out there relates to conflicts that arise between municipalities trying to plan for their residents “and the fact that aggregate resources approvals can override much of municipal planning.”
During the presentation he also criticized using proximity to market as a heavily weighted factor for approving quarry development and noted that the way the provincial policy statement is written makes it impossible to weigh need as a factor.
“There is no question there are some policy failures,” Miller says by phone. But mostly, the problem has to do with failures in procedure “and enforcing compliance.” He attributes the compliance problems to not having enough people in the Ministry of Natural Resources to do it. Lack of enforcement of progressive rehabilitation plans, usually a key point in negotiations for developing a quarry or a pit, in turn means that the land usually undergoes profound and lasting transformation, he says. Many pits and quarries end up as a small lake devoid of aquatic life or being rehabilitated to residential or commercial development, instead of being returned to previous use, he points out.
Hearings continue Monday May 14 from 2 to 6 p.m. And Wednesday May 16 from 4 to 6 p.m. BF