Canada’s Lake Superior Heritage Coast Eyed for Gravel Extraction

Canada’s Lake Superior Heritage Coast Eyed for Gravel Extraction

By: Mary Jo Cullen

Michipicoten Bay, just west of the town of Wawa, Canada lies in the midst of the longest virtually undeveloped stretch of Lake Superior. To the north for 200 kilometres lies a roadless wilderness culminating in Pukaskwa National Park, jewel of Lake Superior. To the south for 100 kilometres lies Canada’s Lake Superior Provincial Park, whose mountainous headlands, sandy coves and dramatic rivers, leave travelers along adjacent Highway 17 awestruck.

The Bay itself is incredibly beautiful. Seven sand beaches ring the Bay like pearls on a necklace. And the centerpiece of this ‘tableau’ is the mouth of the Michipicoten River, a totally enchanting place of sand spits, dunes, beaches and fast water.

An eco-tourism operation established at the rivermouth ten years ago has been growing rapidly. This operation is in line with the expectations of the Ontario government who have ‘designated’ this area as the Great Lakes Heritage Coast (GLHC), both to preserve it and to establish a world-class eco-tourism industry that would help sustain local communities and provide an alternative to the traditional boom and bust cycles of the northern resource extraction economy.

In its designation of the GLHC the Ontario government requested that communities encourage private land development on their shorelines that harmonizes with the GLHC vision for the Coast – a vision in which eco-tourism lodges and First Nation Interpretive Centres would be more welcoming to tourists and would leave a smaller footprint than pulp mills and mining operations. To facilitate this ‘new economy’, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has led the way by investing millions of dollars in infrastructure, partnerships, and promotion of the area.

Despite this vision, a U.S. company has purchased 1,000 acres in Michipicoten Bay, and has been given the green light by the Township of Michipicoten to establish an aggregate processing operation. The property includes 2.5 kilometres of Lake Superior Shoreline. The property would be clearcut, stripped of soil, and then the ancient bedrock would be drilled, blasted, crushed into gravel, and shipped to Michigan by freighter for road building. The owners estimate the lifetime of the operation at 50 years.

Rock of the Michipicoten area is likely to contain both sulphides and arsenic. Arsenic has contaminated First Nation wells, less than a kilometre from the proposed site, and past mining operations inland near the town of Wawa have left a legacy of arsenic contaminated soils.

If the rock in the project area of Michipicoten Bay does contain sulphides, there is a high level of risk of a phenomenon known as acid rock drainage. Sulphides, exposed to air and water create sulphuric acid, which in this case could end up in Lake Superior. A scenario that could be disastrous for the lake trout that spawn off the property dock, for the white fish that spawn a short distance away, and for the sturgeon – one of only 9 self-sustaining populations on Lake Superior – that feed on the bottom of near-shore waters in Michipicoten River and Bay.

Dust from the operation is a concern for local residents; as is the possibility of pollution from the many thousands of freighters that will load aggregate at the site over the expected 50-year lifetime of the operation, and of the potential proliferation of exotic species that could be transported in ship ballasts. In addition, a caribou ‘corridor’ established along the shores of the Bay would be blocked by the operation, which will blast within 50 meters of the waterline.

The proposed operation appears incompatible with the needs of the growing eco-tourism operation at the mouth of the Michipicoten River, and with the desires of tourists who would come for clean air and water, for silence, and for the ageless, primitive call of an intact boreal landscape.

Seeking to raise awareness of this threat to the Superior North Shore, widely perceived as a planetary treasure, the U.S. environmental group Lighthawk has just completed a unique airplane flight along the coastline. Arranged by the National Wildlife Federation in the United States, Lighthawk took a member of the media and a representative from the office of the Governor of Michigan to see first hand what would be at stake in the Michipicoten Bay undertaking.

“Most Michiganders would not want their roads built by destroying part of the longest, wildest stretch of natural Lake Superior shoreline,” says Michelle Halley of the National Wildlife Federation in the U.S., organizer of the Lighthawk event. “Governor Granholm will be aware of this. We’re hoping that her office will place conditions on where the materials used in Michigan road-building are sourced.”

“To our minds this coastline is a national, if not a planetary, treasure,” said Mary Jo Cullen of Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay, a local grassroots group concerned about the potential environmental effects and destruction to the lakeshore from the proposed quarry. “It is within a day’s drive of populations in Southern Ontario and the U.S. mid-west. It must be protected for people on both sides of the border, and for future generations.”

Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay and other critics of the quarry have petitioned the Ministry of the Environment for an environmental assessment of the project. The Ontario government is presently considering this request. The grassroots group has also raised the issue of inadequate zoning for a quarry project on this property, with the result that the project is on hold until the municipality makes a decision on a rezoning proposal by the proponent.

For further information please contact: Mary Jo Cullen (705) 366-9393 or (416) 922-0151

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.