Melancthon quarry galvanizes opponents

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In 1830, a group of men set out from Hamilton, Ontario, to open up 32 hectares of land on a small Ojibway lake by Melancthon Township's Pine River. They, and the small industries that came after them, were attracted to the water resources in what was soon to be known as Horning's Mills. They built a sawmill, a grist mill, a frame house, and brought their families to settle and build this small historic community.

I stood on the crumbling foundations of one of the original mills for which Horning's Mills is named 180 years later, thinking about another group interested in the area's resources. The Highland Companies, with the financial backing of the $23 billion U.S. hedge fund Baupost, has bought up close to 8,000 acres of prime Ontario farmland in this sensitive area, and proposes to blast a 2,400 acre hole into the region's aquifer.

They'll also have to pump out some 600 million litres of water that filters through the aquifer each and every day to keep that big hole from filling up with water from a complex, largely unmapped network of underground streams and rivers. Now why, you may ask, would anyone want to destroy an aquifer -- the headwaters of five major rivers -- and put at risk the drinking water of some 1 million people downstream?

In a word, aggregate -- limestone aggregate to be specific -- and there's an obscene amount of money to be made by digging 200 feet below the water table to mine it. Aggregate mining falls under Ontario's Aggregate Resource Act, which doesn't require an environmental assessment.

At this point, the Ministry of Natural Resources is so poorly staffed it can't possibly keep on top of the compliance issues as dictated by the ARA, so without an environmental assessment, the project -- and the billions of litres of water it affects -- would proceed with little or no oversight from the provincial government.

Anti-quarry activists were cautiously optimistic when in early September, just weeks before the upcoming provincial election, the McGuinty government announced it would make Highland Companies subject to a comprehensive Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed mega quarry. The EA could take as long as three years, and will require consultation with the general public, First Nations peoples and the ministry, all of which must be documented.

According to Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (OSSGA) President Moreen Miller, the decision to go with the environmental assessment is "nothing more than pre-election politics... the government has, once again, undermined its own land use approvals process and sent another message that will hurt business and investment in Ontario." Not exactly an unbiased opinion, but that's what one would expect from the head of Ontario's quarry industry.

One of the many farm families to be impacted by the proposed project are the Armstrongs. They've been farming in the area since 1853. "We're trying to protect the future of farming for our grandchildren," says Mary Lynn Armstrong. "It's just wrong, for everyone. It's really taken over our lives." Local real estate values have plummeted and many, feeling backed into a corner, have sold to Highland and moved away. "We've lost so many people here. You can see it every Sunday in church, in town, at the arena," says Mary Lynn. "We've lost five homes within two miles of our farm."

Many historic farmhouses have been razed, burned to the ground under what many feel is a scorched earth policy designed to intimidate the local people. Those who have stayed on for the fight are very concerned by what they've seen already, and by what they can expect -- 24/7 blasting and a relentless stream of truck traffic going past their doors, day and night.

Ralph Armstrong took time out from his busy livestock farm to take me on a tour of the region. At a hilltop property belonging to a friend, we were treated to a spectacular view of the land below -- wooded, gently undulating hills and patchwork fields that are slated for open pit mining upon Ontario government approval. It's absolutely mind-boggling to think that those thousands of acres of heartbreakingly beautiful land will become a massive 200 ft. deep hole the size of 2,000 football fields.

We also drove past a swathe of land where the grass has been cut short, manicured in a way that stands out among the fields and trees of Melancthon -- it's like coming across astroturf in the middle of the woods. "Bobolinks used to nest there," says Armstrong, "but not anymore." 

The bobolink is a protected bird that nests in tall grasses, and you can't mine an area that is the breeding ground of a protected species. No small wonder that Highland has made it uninviting to bobolinks by hacking all the grass away from the nesting area. "They've been clear cutting trees too," Armstrong says as we drive past what looks like a healthy wood lot. "They leave just enough trees around the edge to keep what they're doing hidden from view, but we've got aerial photos that show what they've done. It's shameful, absolutely shameful."

As we pass the one room schoolhouse that Ralph Armstrong once attended as a child, we can see "Stop the Mega Quarry" signs, one after the other lining either side of the road. I look and wonder how on earth Highland thinks it can get away with destroying this environmentally sensitive, beautiful land. How can they possibly think we'd allow a U.S.-backed company to control billions of litres of Ontario's water? Well, they can't, according to NDACT (North Dufferin County Agricultural and Community Taskforce) Carl Cosack.

Cosack, an organic beef rancher says, "it's insane to allow private control over all that water. We can't afford to mess with the headwaters -- once the flow is changed, it can't be fixed."

According to one local politician, Highland has already tried to disturb the underground water flow, even though their aggregate license could be years away from approval.

A resident of Horning's Mills, Nanci Malek ran for township council on the mega quarry issue. "They've already tried to redirect water flow on one of their properties, so I filed a stop work order." Malek keeps close watch for any issues of non-compliance. "As long as they keep trying to screw up the water flow, I'll keep filing stop work orders."

People are determined, and better organized than Highland Companies anticipated. "I'll bet they thought, 'what can a bunch of farmers do to stop us?'" says Cosack. Well, it would appear that both Highland and Baupost seriously underestimated the sophistication and determination of local farmers. "We educated ourselves on the issues, on the science and the legislation. Before this, none of us had a clue about mining or the ARA."

In response to the increasingly well-educated and organized farming community, Baupost sent in the big guns. They replaced Highland spokesman Michael Daniher with über spin-doctors Hill and Knowlton. You might remember the public relations firm from the story about Kuwaiti babies in incubators being massacred by Iraqi soldiers at the start of the first Gulf War. Yes, THAT Hill and Knowlton (the story was later revealed to be a complete hoax, but by that time H&K had already successfully "manufactured consent" for Desert Storm).

These are the kind of people the Melancthon farming community are up against, but that doesn't phase Carl Cosack. "You can't farm this land for generations without having a whole lot of backbone. This quarry is so fundamentally, deeply wrong, anyone can see it -- it has to fail." While nobody's buying the spin of Hill and Knowlton or backing down from what they feel are the scare tactics of Highland Companies, there remains government legislation to contend with.

Getting an EA for the proposed mega quarry is certainly a victory, but many quarry opponents see McGuinty's announcement as nothing more than a ploy to get re-elected. It wouldn't be the first time a government flip-flopped on an environmental issue before, during and especially after an election. Local activists currently enjoy the support of their Conservative MP and MPP, but fear that the support could evaporate under a Hudak-led Conservative government (Tim Hudak has not yet come out with a position either way on the proposed quarry). Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is the only provincial leader who is vocally against the proposed quarry. Activists will have their work cut out for them over the next few years, and it will take substantial effort to ensure that the EA is fair and accurate -- regardless of the election results.

Meg Borthwick is a babble moderator and freelance journalist. With files by Toronto journalist Elizabeth Littlejohn. Some videos can be seen here and here.

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