Preserving natural areas, or Extracting aggregates wherever they lay?

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In 2007, the ECO undertook an examination of the challenge of creating sustainable communities in southern Ontario. The following articles are included:

Aggregate pits and quarries (that produce stone, sand and gravel) require approval from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) under the Aggregate Resources Act (ARA). They often require additional approval under other provincial statutes, such as the Planning Act. The siting of new pits and quarries, including the expansion of existing sites, is one of the most difficult and controversial land use decisions being taken in Ontario today, in part, because of conflicting priorities in provincial policy.

Conflicts with other land uses and community interests are heightened because of a provincial policy that states aggregates should be extracted as close to market as possible. The inherent conflicts between aggregate production and the protection of natural areas arise because many of the highest quality aggregate deposits in Southern Ontario are found in areas of great ecological and social significance. More than 75 per cent of aggregates used in the Greenbelt area come from the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine plan areas.

In the past four years, the ECO has received a number of applications for review of the current regulatory framework for aggregate extraction. Applicants have raised the need for an aggregates conservation strategy, improved rehabilitation policies, revisions to the provincial policy statements, and new procedures for processing applications.

The ECO also receives many calls and letters from the public and municipal officials expressing concerns about the process used to permit new sites and expand existing sites. Unfortunately, there is not much the ECO can do in these situations except to explain the opportunities for public comment and appeal under various laws, including the EBR. The ECO has observed over the years that each application moves inexorably towards approval, despite the potential environmental impacts and the legitimate concerns raised by municipalities, citizen groups and individuals.

What is the true state of our aggregates resources?

The aggregate industry argues that it is misunderstood, and that public misconceptions about the industry are making it more difficult to get approval for new sites. The Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (OSSGA) and the MNR both state that there is a critical need for new licensed supplies of aggregate, because depletion of existing sources is significantly outpacing the licensing of new sources. They also project that demand will continue to grow. MNR has stated that because of projected population growth in Southern Ontario, “even with enhanced aggregate conservation measures (recycling, etc.) and growth management initiatives, the demand for aggregates will continue to grow.”

It is difficult to evaluate the validity of these statements because of the lack of publicly available data on aggregate demand and supply. The ECO has been calling for several years for MNR to update its 1992 State of the Resource Report, and to provide up-to-date information on aggregate reserves and consumption trends. MNR, in partnership with The Ontario Aggregate Resources Corporation (TOARC), has initiated a study to update elements of a 1992 study on conservation and recycling. MNR anticipates the study will be completed by the end of 2007, as described in the Ministry Progress section of this Annual Report.

The ECO has also recommended that MNR develop an aggregates conservation strategy. MNR informed the ECO in February 2007 that it remains committed to “contributing to” an aggregate resources strategy. However, the ministry considers completion of a recycling study as a prerequisite step before developing the larger aggregate resources strategy.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan states that the Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal (MPIR) and MNR will work with municipalities, producers of aggregates and other stakeholders to:

  • identify significant mineral aggregate resources for the GGH;
  • develop a long-term strategy for wise use and conservation; and
  • identify opportunities for recycling and coordinated approaches to rehabilitation.

In March 2007, MPIR staff informed the ECO that no progress was made on this initiative during the 2006/2007 reporting year.

Despite the lack of information on supply and demand, the province made a significant change to the Provincial Policy Statement (2005), issued under the Planning Act, regarding the need for aggregates. The 2005 PPS states that, “Demonstration of need for mineral aggregate resources, including any type of supply/demand analysis, shall not be required, notwithstanding the availability, designation or licensing for extraction of mineral aggregate resources locally or elsewhere.”

Some municipalities have argued that they wouldn’t approve any other land use without full and open justification of the need. Even in areas of the province where the municipality and the public know that there are ample reserves, the municipality cannot require an applicant to demonstrate need.

Do we need to develop new “greenfield” quarries in protected areas?

Pits and quarries are allowed almost everywhere in Ontario, under certain conditions. Even within the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP), Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP) and Greenbelt (GB) Plan, very little land is off-limits. The 1985 NEP allows new pits and quarries in the largest land use zone with an amendment to the Plan and to date every application for a new or expanded operation has been granted. The 2002 ORMCP allows new pits and quarries within all but the most protective zone, and this will be re-examined during the first 10-year review of the plan. The 2005 GB Plan allows pits and quarries in all areas except for provincially significant wetlands, some woodlands and endangered species habitat.

These plans all include additional requirements for applications and rehabilitation, but the assumption is that environmental “constraints” can be identified and mitigated through engineering solutions. If impacts can’t be mitigated, other land may be exchanged or added to Plan areas to compensate for the loss of protected areas or functions. In a 2005 editorial, the Environmental Commissioner posed some fundamental questions, including whether we need to develop more “greenfield” quarries in ecologically sensitive locations, such as the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine.

The aggregate industry and provincial government take the position that pits and quarries are an “interim land use,” because sites are to be rehabilitated into productive uses. The ECO acknowledges that some individual sites have been successfully rehabilitated, but a recent EBR review of rehabilitation has confirmed that most operators are not conducting progressive or final rehabilitation as required. (Further discussion of this issue is provided in Our cratered landscape: Can pits and quarries be rehabilitated?.)

Another reason to challenge the concept of an “interim land use” is that sites are rarely returned to their original condition. More likely, pits are converted to housing or golf courses, and if a quarry has gone below the water table, the site will be permanently flooded, resulting in a man-made lake. Some quarries will require manipulation of water levels in perpetuity.

The term “interim” also suggests “short-term,” but the impact of aggregate operations on the environment and communities is rarely that. The Greenbelt Task Force report on aggregates noted that most existing quarries in the Greenbelt Plan Area are more than 50 years old. Adding the years needed to complete the necessary rehabilitation, land used for a quarry could be unavailable for any other use for many decades. It has been observed that “no reasonable person could consider this length of time an ‘interim’ use.”

The NEP was established, in part, because of the impact of pits and quarries. Yet experience has shown that since 1985, no application for a new or expanded pit in the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area has been turned down, and the impacts of the pits and quarries that pre-dated the Plan continue. The Niagara Escarpment Commission has noted that, “Although called temporary, the majority of the pits inherited by the NEP at the time of its approval are still there and in many instances expanding or have plans to expand. Rehabilitation for many is a long way away. From a cultural landscape perspective, or for people living in the vicinity, aggregate extraction is almost a lifetime issue.”

One of the reasons the public is so concerned about new sites is because of problems with compliance at existing sites. Illustrating the scope of the problem, MNR recently completed an inventory of all existing pits and quarries in the Oak Ridges Moraine area to assess licensee compliance with the ARA. The results of the inventory indicated that 100 out of 121 sites had compliance problems.

Who has a say in approving pits and quarries?

Municipalities have expressed concern to the ECO for many years that they have little control over approvals for pits and quarries. “Red tape reduction” amendments to the ARA in 1999 essentially removed a municipality’s power to restrict approval of pits and quarries. Municipalities across the province are trying different strategies to regulate aggregate operations, but these strategies are often stymied by the provincial government.

The MNR recently revised its manual of policies and procedures under the ARA, which sets out application procedures, requirements for environmental impact studies, and other policies. Public and agency comments focused on the inadequacy of environmental protections and frustration with the application processes. A summary of the ECO’s review of the manual can be found in Aggregates Procedures Manual, with a more detailed review here.

One notable concession by MNR was to revise the rules that apply when a company with an above-water table licence applies to extract aggregates below the water table. In the past, MNR often processed these applications as a “minor site plan amendment,” and did not provide notification or an opportunity to comment to municipalities or the public. MNR responded to concerns by introducing a mandatory public/agency consultation opportunity on this type of site plan amendment. MNR did not change any of the other policies restricting substantive municipal input into aggregate siting decisions.

Case study: a proposed new quarry in the Greenbelt

As noted above, the ECO has received several applications for review requesting that the province amend the 2005 PPS aggregates policies to remove the apparent bias towards pits and quarries over other land uses. In all cases, the ministries – MNR and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) – have turned down these requests for review. In one recent application for review, the applicants made a very compelling case for a new early screening/evaluation mechanism, under the ARA and Planning Act, for proposed aggregate operations that require approvals under both Acts.

The applicants argue that the current regime includes an inherent presumption of development, where applications may be continually amended until they are finally approved. The applicants state that the existing approvals processes can take 10 years or more, and are difficult, complex, long and arduous. Participation requires an intensive investment of human, financial and other resources by the proponent, municipal and provincial agencies, and the public.

The applicants described their involvement with a proposed quarry in Flamborough, to illustrate “the extent of involvement necessary by citizens today despite the elected and public institutions designed to represent the public interest.” The proposed quarry is already in the early stages of the municipal Official Plan Amendment process and other approvals processes, such as a permit-to-take-water (PTTW) under the Environmental Protection Act. The proposed quarry is located in the Natural Heritage System of the Greenbelt Plan and contains several provincially significant wetlands, significant woodlands and water resource features. The applicants point out that the impacts would not be interim; the proposed quarry would mean a permanent loss of hundreds of acres of farmland, since the planned rehabilitation option is development of a lake facility. The applicants believe that the proposal is incompatible with existing municipal plans and approved developments, including proximity to residential developments. They are also concerned about the potential impacts of the quarry on groundwater quality and quantity, since the site includes the recharge area for the Carlisle municipal wellheads and could affect wellhead protection areas.

Both MNR and MMAH turned down this application for review, stating that the existing regulatory regime is sufficient. MMAH pointed to recent amendments to the Planning Act (see the ECO’s review in this Report), saying that application processes have been improved to allow municipalities to require pre-consultation. MNR said that the ARA already provides due process for public notification and consultation, as well as for the review of technical reports, to protect the environment.

The ECO will review the ministries’ handling of this application in the 2007/2008 Annual Report, since the ministry responses were received in May 2007. Some of the necessary approvals have been posted on the Registry already (e.g., Hamilton’s Rural Official Plan to be approved by MMAH, and a PTTW issued by MOE to test the company’s water-pumping system), but there will be others (such as an ARA licence application to be considered by MNR). The ECO notes that MOE received more than 600 comments from individuals and organizations, including the City of Hamilton, on the proposed PTTW. The ECO may review some or all of the ministry decisions on these approvals in future Annual Reports.

Summary and ECO comment

The ECO urges the provincial government to reconcile its conflicting priorities between aggregate extraction and environmental protection. Specifically, the province should:

  • make the aggregates strategy promised in the Growth Plan a high priority;
  • give municipalities more say in the siting of pits & quarries; and
  • develop a new mechanism to quickly screen out inappropriate proposals that should not proceed.

Recommendation 3:

The ECO recommends that the provincial government reconcile its conflicting priorities between aggregate extraction and environmental protection. Specifically, the province should develop a new mechanism within the ARA approvals process that screens out, at an early stage, proposals conflicting with identified natural heritage or source water protection values.

This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Irreconcilable Priorities: The Challenge of Creating Sustainable Communities in Southern Ontario." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 44-49.