Monster mine plan cuts deep into Ontario farmland

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Melancthon Township is due to be the new home of North America's second-largest open-pit mine, digging limestone out of the surrounding countryside.

Imagine a hole in the ground, the size of 2,000 football fields and deeper than the gorge at Niagara Falls. Sound a little scary? Now imagine that this gaping hole, at the headwaters of two major river systems in Ontario, isn't subject to an environmental assessment.

Say what?

In Ontario, you need have an environmental assessment done before you can build a house. However, if you want to dig a 200-foot deep, 2,400-acre hole in prime Ontario farmland, you just need to apply to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for a license to mine aggregate. In fact, a license to dig the largest limestone quarry in Canada has been applied for in Melancthon Township, a farming community about 1.5 hours north of Toronto. That's potato country, and proposed quarry has some people very concerned.

In 2006, local entrepreneur and Highland Group head John Lowndes began buying up parcels of prime potato land in Melancthon Township. Some local farmers, struggling with increased costs and lower market prices, reluctantly saw selling to The Highland Group as a way out of the economically depressed agricultural sector. As the Highland holdings increased, Lowndes continued to assure people that he would continue potato farming. To be fair, he did just that.

The Highland Group web site boasts that their "locally-based potato farming operation is the largest in Ontario," and local residents assumed that all the Highland Group really wanted to do. Highland's interests, however, aren't confined to growing potatoes.

Backed by a $23 billion U.S.-based hedge fund, Lowndes' Highland Group of Companies are "the largest landowner, taxpayer, employer and private sector donor in (Melancthon)," and they want to mine limestone aggregate -- in a very big way. The proposed U.S.-owned quarry will be the second largest of its kind in North America, with a potential of pulling some $16 billion out of the land that feeds us. At this point, all that's standing in its way are a group of very concerned and determined Ontario voters.

One would think that a project of this magnitude would need some kind of environmental study, but under the Aggregate Resources Act, a limestone quarry doesn't require an environmental impact assessment, even one so massive that they call it a "mega-quarry."

Carl Cosack is a local organic beef farmer and spokesperson for NDACT -- the North Dufferin County Agricultural and Community Taskforce. He and several community members are deeply concerned about the proposed quarry's impact on both the community and the environment.

NDACT, according to Cosack, is the product of a conversation he had with potato farmer Dale Rutledge at the local TSE store in 2008. Rutledge told Cosack that "something fishy" was going on at the Highland properties, just down the road from his farm. Rutledge's Highland neighbours told him they were digging irrigation holes. Rutledge knew that didn't make sense if they were farming potatoes. As it turns out, they were prospecting for limestone aggregate. Aggregate is crushed stone mixed with cement to make concrete for construction projects, and the limestone in Melancthon is ideal for the lucrative aggregate market.

In 2009 Rutledge, Cosack and an unprecedented number of community members got together at a standing-room only township meeting. "We started putting two and two together," says Cosack, "and realized that our new neighbours, the Highland Group, weren't telling us the whole story." Thus, NDACT was formed.

"We're not experts or activists or anything," says Cosack. "We're mostly farmers in our 60s, and we really don't want to have to fight for our land at this point in our lives." That should tell you a bit about their dedication to preserving the land they love against the proposed quarry.

Fortunately, they're not alone in their battle.

The Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow has said, "we will do everything we can to help this community protect itself. With the shocking indifference of the provincial government and the pure greed of the American billionaires that bought up the farmland, this will be an uphill battle, but" Barlow continues, "there will be a provincial election in October and we have tens of thousands of members in Ontario -- and they love to vote!"

Provincial NDP leader Andrea Howarth stood up in the Ontario legislature in April and said, 

"A U.S.-owned company wants to build North America's second-largest open-pit mine next to the Niagara Escarpment and amidst the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water for over a million Ontarians. Farmers, citizens, aboriginal people and environmentalists oppose this planned quarry, which will destroy thousands of acres of prime farmland. ... the Sierra Club, the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and the Council of Canadians all oppose this proposed quarry."

The David Suzuki Foundation and the Grand River Conservation Authority have expressed concern over the environmental impact of the project, which could affect the drinking water of some one million people to the south of the quarry. Some 600 million litres of water will have to be pumped from the quarry every day in order to access the valuable limestone aggregate. That's because the limestone in Melancthon Township acts as a giant aquifer for both the Grand and Nottawasaga Rivers.

On April 22nd, Earth Day, some 200 activists, led by Toronto Mohawk activist Danny Beaton, set out on a five-day walk from Queen's Park to Melancthon Township. The walk was a tangible sign of the alliance of urban and rural activists, a force to be reckoned with.

That's pretty significant support for a grassroots movement formed in a relatively small, but increasingly vocal Ontario farming community. Clearly this issue has legs, and given the upcoming provincial election, some speculate that it could become a significant campaign vehicle.

Needless to say, the Highland Group has lined up some pretty impressive political backers as well.

For starters, Highland hired former John Tory adviser Michael Daniher to handle its image. He's been the front man for Highland and its various operations in Melancthon Township since news of the proposed quarry began to spread.

Daniher says the quarry will create jobs and add $1.2 million per annum in tax dollars to the Melancthon Township coffers. "There will be 465 ongoing jobs, 300 of them trucking jobs that may be open to local area residents." All the jobs, according to Daniher, are non-union. The Highland group spokesperson is also confident that they can mine the limestone in an environmentally responsible way. In a phone interview, Daniher said, "99 per cent of the land will be rehabilitated and returned to agricultural use. We have a Progressive Rehabilitation Plan that is legally binding under the Aggregate Resources Act."

In addition to front man Michael Daniher, the Highland Group has also hired a high-powered team of lobbyists who work under the banner of Counsel Public Affairs.

Founding members Caroline Pinto, Charles Harnick and Philip Dewan are well connected to both the provincial Progressive Conservatives and the ruling Liberal party under Dalton McGuinty. Pinto was with Harnick as policy adviser while be was the Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs.

Counsel Public Affairs partner Charles Harnick, former Conservative MPP for Willowdale, Ontario was Attorney General and Minister of Native Affairs from 1995 to 1999 when the Harris government was running the province. One of Ontario's most controversial governments, the Harris Conservatives were responsible for ordering the provincial police riot squad into native-occupied Ipperwash Provincial Park, then occupied by the Stony Point Ojibwa. The result of the ill-conceived raid was the murder of Ojibwa activist Dudley George. It's important to note that Harnick himself was critical of the Harris government's handling of the affair.

Philip Dewan has been adviser to former Liberal Premier David Peterson and current Premier Dalton McGuinty, and was McGuinty's Chief of Staff when the Liberals were in opposition. He was also acting director at the Ontario Ministry of Industry, Trade & Technology. As director of policy in the Office of the Premier of Ontario he was a key policy adviser. Dewan was a member of the Premier's Council on Science and Technology. His private sector work includes a nine-year stint as president and CEO of Fair Rental Policy Organization, lobbying for over 1,000 landlords, property managers and developers.

Michael Daniher says it's all good -- he estimates that, in addition to jobs and tax dollars, as much as $140 million will be spent locally per year. Road improvements will be paid for by Highland Group to offset the damages caused by the hundreds of daily truck trips along, day and night, seven days a week. Imagine having hundreds of trucks drive by your house, non-stop, 25/7 for up to 20 years. Not a happy prospect for remaining residents who are concerned about noise and air pollution, and the safety of school children along the haul route. When fully operational, it is estimated that 150 loaded trucks will leave the quarry every hour.

Local residents and environmentalists are puzzled as to how the Highland Group plans to return the area to agricultural use after removing up to a billion tons of limestone from the headwaters.

Michael Daniher says existing technology can replace the natural limestone filter and pump the water to the surface without contamination. If there is any contamination, he says, there are "catch basins" to contain hazardous contaminants. The Highland Group's license application points to a proven success at a similar quarry in Milton, Ontario, where water filtration has been effective.

According to the Grand River Conservation Authority, however, the Milton quarry is only "proposed." In a document sent to the Ministry of Natural Resources, the GRCA says they were able to determine that the Milton quarry is untested. Additionally, it's not so similar to the one Highland is proposing. The Milton quarry is next to the Niagara Escarpment, which is the dominating water filter for the area. This is not the case with the proposed Melancthon quarry where, in addition to being many times the size of the Milton quarry, it is the dominant limestone aquifer that is actually being mined.

In fact, similar mining plans have been turned down by both Caledon and Flamborough because the comparative studies, where the water recirculation process was used, were done on completely different soil types. Quoting Councillor McCarthy of Flamborough: "It became an indisputable truth: All filed documents held that the suggested process, of the whole Water Recirculation Process proposed by the applicant, was 'theoretical' and not tested."

Local Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones has expressed concern in the provincial legislature, and MP David Tilson has even asked federal Environment Minister Peter Kent to step in with a federal environmental assessment. There are concerns that the provincial ministry is understaffed and incapable of enforcing the ARA at the Highland site, and significant follow-up to its Rehabilitation Plan is unlikely.

Here are some of the documented issues with limestone quarrying:

• Limestone quarrying produces vast quantities of waste water. The waste water can be recycled to a limited degree, but ultimately it will become so contaminated with gases, oils and sediments that it's useless for quarrying.

• Increased sediment can choke aquatic species downstream from mining operations or even begin to calcify the environment.

• 600 million litres of groundwater must be pumped per day to access the limestone. Over-pumping lowers the water table with hazardous consequences, natural springs fed by the underground movement of water cease to flow if the pressure is reduced enough, with the possibility of disrupting ecosystems and even human water source

• There are no long-term studies to indicate that full rehabilitation is anything more than a wait-and-see.

So what's at stake for Highland? Limestone is valued at roughly $18 million per acre, making the quarry worth a potential $43.2 billion. That's quite a chunk of change for Highland's investors. By comparison, potatoes are worth $5,000 per acre, yet Daniher insists that the Highland Group of Companies will continue to farm potatoes.

Since this is the largest quarry application ever filed in Ontario, NDACT is asking people to email the Ontario government with a request for a full Environmental Assessment. To make your voice heard click here.

Premier Dalton McGuinty can be emailed at [email protected]org and Dufferin County MPP Sylvia Jones can be reached at [email protected]. org John Wilkinson, Ontario Minister of the Environment, is at [email protected] and Linda Jeffrey, Ontario Minister of Natural Resources, can be emailed at [email protected].

Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble,'s political discussion forum.


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