UPDATE: The new regulation designating the Highland Companies' proposed mega-quarry as being subject to scrutiny under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act has been posted on the government of Ontario's Environmental Registry.
A proposal to dig a massive mega-quarry in southern Ontario has generated a truly massive amount of opposition. More than 140,000 people have signed a petition to stop the Melancthon mega-quarry, and the province's Ministry of Natural Resources received 2,051 formal objections during a 45-day commenting period. Another 3,735 comments about the project were channelled through Ontario's Environmental Registry, which was set up to allow the public to comment on major projects.
The ranks of vocal critics of the mega-quarry has swelled to include an impressive array of artists, farmers, local residents, First Nations, MPs, MPPs, town councils, and groups like the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians. On Monday, August 29, more than 120 people, including First Nations representatives and about a dozen municipal councilors, gathered in Orangeville, Ontario, to hand over petitions against the mega-quarry to the local Conservative MP and MPP.
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The ranks will likely continue to grow in the fall as more than 70 of Canada's best chefs participate in Foodstock, a pay-what-you-can event in support of the movement to stop the mega-quarry.
With this tidal wave of opposition, a couple of mysterious technical issues should not overlooked.
First, I was intrigued by former Highland Companies' spokesperson, Michael Daniher's assertion in the Orangeville Banner this summer that the company he represented is above the law.
In this article, Daniher argued that the proposal need not undergo an environmental assessment because those are only applicable to public-sector projects, and are only extended to private commercial ones if other approval processes fail to cover the projects. If that is what this company's representatives believe, they are naive.
The proposed Highlands quarry expects to withdraw 600 million litres of water from the site each and every day, and blast one billion tonnes of rock from the ground below. This will alter, disrupt and destroy fish and wildlife habitats and significantly impact the groundwater resources for several watersheds.
Under Canada's Fisheries Act, the act of carrying out a work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat is a federal offence. It matters not that the affected habitat is on private or Crown land, or whether the undertaking is carried out by private individuals or corporations or public ones.
That said, one can be exempted if the proposed work or undertaking is approved by the only governing authority with the mandate to allow such activity, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
However, such a permit is an automatic trigger under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and requires that an environmental assessment take place. So, unless the Highland Companies plans to operate illegally, it must obtain a permit from the DFO.
Speaking of habitat destruction, in my formal letter of objection to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Highlands in April, I pointed out that in 2008 Highland's consultants had observed bobolinks breeding in their study area and within the boundaries of the proposed quarry.
These industrious black songbirds are known to travel up to 1,800 kilometres in a single day during their 20,000 kilometre migration from South America.. In September 2010, the Government of Ontario listed bobolink as a threatened species under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, thereby protecting both the bird and its habitat.
However, despite having found bobolinks on site three years earlier, and never completing formal habitat surveys in the area, Highland's consultants reported that bobolink habitat was "limited to non-existent inside the proposed license area."
As a biologist with 29 years of experience, I recommended that before any approvals for this project are even considered, the company should be required to redo its breeding bird surveys and map the locations and provide detailed habitat descriptions for any areas where bobolink are observed.
If the Highland Companies officials believe that the billion-tonne mega-quarry will not have a negative impact on the environment — including the habitat of local fish species and the imperiled bobolink — they should prove it by undergoing the scrutiny that such a project deserves.