By: Mary Jo Cullen, Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay
When 1000 acres (400 hectares) on the shores of Michipicoten Bay were purchased for a quarry operation, concerned local citizens urgently organized in protest. Michipicoten Bay, just west of the Ontario town of Wawa, is the natural mid-point gateway to a paradise of parks and protected areas extending one after another along the North Shore of Lake Superior for 200 miles (300 kilometres): one National Park, four Provincial Parks and two Conservation Reserves. It is the longest essentially undeveloped, wild shoreline remaining in the Great Lakes.
A giant road-building corporation from Michigan wants the former Algoma Central Railway lands in Michipicoten Bay for road building material. Quarrying plans include the stripping of the boreal forest cover, and the drilling, blasting and crushing of the ancient Algoma bedrock into aggregate to be shipped to Michigan for paving highways.
At issue is possible damage to the coastline of one of the most beautiful and culturally significant landscapes in Canada, as well as a host of potential environmental impacts ranging from serious concerns for water quality and aquatic habitat to the fate of two small remnant herds of woodland caribou – a species listed as ‘threatened’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The traditional migratory corridor of these northern animals, along the shores of Lake Superior, could be blocked by the quarry operation. Also of concern is the incompatibility of noise, dust and lake freighter activity in a world-class ecotourism destination.
Rallying to the defense of Michipicoten Bay has been an impressive list of environmental organizations and significant citizens including U.S. environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and in Canada, environmentalist and world renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman. Adding their voices of concern have been cultural icon Pierre Berton and writer Farley Mowat, as well as the twenty celebrated ‘Champions of the Great Lakes Heritage Coast’ appointed by the Ontario Government to promote public awareness and protection of this unique coastline. These ‘champions’ include artist Ken Danby and adventurers Gary and Joanie McGuffin.
On the advice of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the battle to protect the Bay has focused on two legislative ‘pathways’: the Planning Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.
Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay (CCMB), the grassroots stewardship organization spearheading the opposition, began their campaign by researching the Township’s official plan and zoning by-laws, which under the Planning Act regulate community land use. CCMB immediately discovered that the proponent did not have the zoning required to process aggregate at their quarry site.
By forcing the Township of Michipicoten – which had given the green light to the operation – to require the proponent to seek rezoning, CCMB could then appeal the resultant decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). In Ontario the OMB is the quasi-judicial body that resolves municipal disputes under the Planning Act and other legislation. By earning the right to an OMB Hearing, through appeal, CCMB would have the chance to present concerns and evidence, including scientific experts, before an impartial authority.
In November 2003 the Township of Michipicoten passed the rezoning needed by the proponent to process aggregate, and CCMB immediately appealed that decision. The stage was now set to head for the OMB. Exciting new developments, however, have put that decision on hold.
In December 2002 CCMB had submitted a request to the Ministry of the Environment that the quarry operation at Michipicoten Harbour be subject to an environmental assessment (EA). The request was based on strong arguments, and on a provision of the Environmental Assessment Act that allows the Minister, at her own discretion, to pass a regulation requiring an EA of a proposed private-sector undertaking. However, this provision had rarely been used and had never been used before for private-sector quarry projects.
In a stunning break with tradition on April 2nd, 2004, the new Minister of the Environment, Leona Dombrowsky, officially proposed to pass a regulation that would require the Michipicoten Bay quarry operation to be subject to an environmental assessment, and she called for public comment. Should the Minister follow through on this proposal, it would be a precedentsetting decision with far-reaching implications for environmental protection Province-wide. Environmentally, it would be an historic event.
The window of opportunity for public comment on the Minister’s proposal has, as of this writing, just come to a close. Thanks to the incredible support of environmental organizations and individuals including GLAHNF, on both sides of the border and overseas, 5000 responses in favour of the Minister’s proposal, including hundreds of personal letters, were received by her Ministry. With that kind of overwhelming support CCMB hopefully awaits the Minister’s final decision, which is expected to be rendered at any time. It is significant that in Ontario, a decision in favour of an EA would require the proponent to consider alternatives to a proposed undertaking.
Of course, for CCMB, the OMB appeal always remains a ‘Plan B’ – although an even more costly alternative. CCMB’s hopes are definitely pinned on Minister Dombrowsky. And at this point, thanks to the groundswell of international support, there seems a good chance that an environmental assessment will be taking a good hard look at the many potential impacts of this heavy industrial operation on the shoreline of our planet’s largest body of fresh water. For further information please see the website of Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay at: www.ccmb.ca