by Linda Pim, Federation of Ontario Naturalists
Land use planning policy in Ontario places a very high value on protecting aggregates (sand, gravel, crushed stone) for future extraction — for example, by not allowing construction of housing subdivisions on top of high-quality limestone reserves. On the other hand, provincial policy also recognizes the value of wetlands, and the federal Fisheries Act — the most powerful tool of all — prohibits harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of fisheries habitat.
The Four Corners Environmental Group has successfully used the Fisheries Act to stop — at least for now — a proposed 107-hectare (265-acre) limestone quarry just southwest of Walkerton in Bruce County, within the Lake Huron watershed. The reason? Inadequate homework by the applicant, Formosa Environmental Aggregates Inc., to conserve the brook trout fishery within the section of Greenock Creek, its tributaries and its riparian wetlands passing through Formosa’s property.
While the primary threat to aquatic habitats near Ontario’s urban areas is suburban sprawl, arguably the biggest threat faced by rural Ontarians is aggregate pits and quarries. Well-water drawdown, noise, dust and truck traffic are issues that neighbours typically face, but in the Formosa case, it was fisheries habitat that clinched the victory for Four Corners.
The citizens’ group took Formosa to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which in such cases does not make a decision but instead must offer recommendations to Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources on whether an extraction licence should be issued under the Aggregate Resources Act. According to Four Corners member Brian Folmer, as the OMB hearing proceeded, Formosa continually lost ground, with its consultants presenting unproven, untested, last-minute alterations to its site plans that were not well received by the hearing officer. By the end of the hearing, Formosa revised the proposed mining depth to 295.5 metres (969 feet) above sea level (asl) from its earlier depth of 284 metres (932) feet asl, practically eliminating neighbours’ concerns about water supply since the local water table is at 293 metres (961 feet) asl.
But fisheries habitat concerns remained unresolved. The quarry’s operations could remove the creek’s tributaries; draw down the creek’s water within the cone of influence of quarry pumping; reduce and possibly eliminate coldwater upwellings in the creek that are critical for spawning; interrupt and divert flows from proposed excavation areas to the riparian wetlands that are critical as a trout food source; interfere with the riparian environment that provides refugia for fledgling fish from predators; and affect the quality and quantity of water returned to the creek.
By the date of the hearing, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was still not satisfied that Formosa had addressed DFO’s many concerns. In spite of Formosa’s attempts to mitigate habitat destruction through changes to its proposal, the OMB ruled that “permission ought not to be recommended for quarry operation where the likelihood of adverse impacts exists. Such permission should await the consideration and the decision of [DFO].” The OMB recommended that Formosa be allowed to mine only to the 295.5-metre elevation, unless DFO’s concerns about deeper mining could be adequately addressed.
The view of the Four Corners Environmental Group is that the further costs of the research and monitoring needed to satisfy DFO on the brook trout habitat issue may be prohibitive for Formosa, in addition to the quantity of available limestone being dramatically reduced by the OMB’s recommendation on mining depth. Says Brian Folmer: “We are very pleased with all of the limits, restrictions and safeguards that the OMB has placed on any future licence application. We have finally seen some accountability imposed on the developer.”
But the Four Corners’ intervention at the OMB has cost them over $63,000 Can. thus far for legal and expert assistance, with an additional $29,000 Can. still to pay. Such is the steep price of success at the OMB. For further information about the case — and for Canadians, information on making tax-receiptable donations to help pay the bills — contact Brian Folmer, Four Corners Environmental Group, (519) 881-3300, fax (519) 881-1776.