Learning from a victory: How Ontario communities stopped a mega quarry

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Residents of Melancthon Township are breathing a sigh of relief as years of activism have paid off.  Highland Companies has withdrawn its application for a license to mine aggregate from some of the most productive farmland in Ontario.

In 2006 Highland Companies, backed by a multi-billion dollar U.S.-based hedge fund, began buying up land in Melancthon Township, a community some 120 km north of Toronto. Highland told the community that their only goal was to grow potatoes, after buying out the community's two most productive potato farming operations.

Not long after, Highland representatives began canvassing neighbouring farmers, offering to buy their farms, with promises to continue their operations intact. Some sold because they were older and looking to retire. Some sold because they were finding it increasingly difficult to make a living when the gap between productions cost and the price of potatoes on the local market began to shrink. Many came to regret the sales as they watched their houses razed and their land lying dormant. Residents watched with dismay as Highland burned beautiful 19th century farmhouses to the ground, and eliminated the habitat of the bobolink, a species of protected bird.

Fortunately, local residents became suspicious and began investigating Highland Companies. After observing some strangely 'non-farming' activity (geological surveys, etc), a few people started to notice that it wasn't just corporate farming that Highland was interested in. There was a bigger agenda.

To their horror, Melancthon Township residents discovered that the land being purchased -- some 2,400 acres in all -- was to be used to dig the largest limestone quarry in Canada. A hole the size of 2,000 football fields, deeper than the Niagara gorge, was going into prime Ontario farmland in a region known for its natural beauty. The mining operation would also compromise a massive aquifer, responsible for filtering the water of more than 2 million Ontario residents.  

In 2009 farmers Dale Rutledge and Carl 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 -- the North Dufferin County Agricultural and Community Taskforce -- was formed. It was to spell the beginning of the end of the mega quarry project.

At the time, Carl Cosak said, "We're not experts or activists or anything. 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."

But fight they did. And they won.

This small farming community, some 1.5 hours north of Toronto, began to reach out to the environmental activist community. David Suzuki came on side, condemning the quarry proposal as something akin to an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The Council of Canadians became supportive of the cause. Maude Barlow 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."

Rallies were organized. A dedicated group of Indigenous activists gathered at Queen's Park and marched all the way to Melancthon. First Nations communities from as far north as Manitoulan Island traveled to Melancthon to offer spiritual and physical support. And then there was Foodstock.

The brainchild of chef Michael Stadtländer, Foodstock was a gathering of local culinary talent meant to highlight the importance of eating locally produced foods, to bring attention to the anti-mega quarry movement, and promote the need to protect water resources and farmland.

Stadtländer convinced about 100 chefs from across Ontario and Canada to volunteer their time and food for the cause. As Footstock volunteer co-ordinator David Waters said so succinctly, "You can't eat gravel." Musical artists like Sarah Harmer donated her talents, as did many other musicians. Local artisans donated their time and their creations. 

When asked what motivated him to organize the event, Stadtländer replied, "I saw farmhouses being burnt.  They began to cut down the wood lots. They started to destroy the habitats of endangered birds. It made me really mad." No stranger to fundraising, the well-connected Stadtländer decided he wasn't going to do a traditional sit-down dinner to raise money. He wanted to do something more connected to the issue itself. "I think Highland thought that it being out in the back bush, the project would go through without any problem." Highland underestimated the determination and intellect of the community.

Wonder of wonders, 28,000 people turned out on a chilly, rainy autumn day to squelch through knee-deep mud, stand in long lineups for samples of amazing local cuisine, buy local art and listen to music -- all for the sake of the anti-quarry movement and the importance of eating locally. It was a stunning triumph for the community and its supporters.

Pressure was brought to bear on the Ontario government. The Aggregate Resource Act (ARA), the legislation governing the licensing and oversight of aggregate quarries, does not require an environmental assessment for this type of mining. As one farmer pointed out, "you need an EA to build a house, but a 2,400 acre, 200 foot deep aggregate mine gets a free pass."

Eventually, community outrage forced the McGuinty government to do something no Ontario government had ever done before. They ordered an environmental assessment before any mining license could be issued.  The 3,000-plus page Highland application was placed in limbo, and not long after, Highland Companies announced that they were withdrawing their application for the mega quarry.

In a press release issued last week, Highland spokesperson John Scherer said, "While we believe that the quarry would have brought significant economic benefit to Melancthon Township and served Ontario's well-documented need for aggregate, we acknowledge that the application does not have sufficient support from the community and government to justify proceeding with the approval process." Highland also intends to halt its plans to revive the rail corridor between Owen Sound and  Melancthon Township. John Lowndes has resigned from his role as President and Highland says he has no further involvement with the company. 

Quarry opponents are, understandably, overjoyed by the news.

Stop the Quarry representative Blaine van Bruggen says, "there was an overwhelmingly negative response from the community, but more importantly the government scrutiny brought to bear by the environmental assessment that was ordered." Van Bruggen says that even though the Highland Companies have deep pockets -- they're backed by the 23 billion dollar Baupost hedge fund -- the EA process would’ve been a long and expensive one. "The science involved in the EA would have brought to light the impact that a quarry that size would have on the area."

Years of dogged determination, hard work and sheer backbone have paid off. Melancthon is saved from the scourge of a massive aggregate mine and its disastrous environmental impact.


Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble. 

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