The coastline along Lake Superior is considered some of the most scenic and breathtaking in Canada, but the Ontario Municipal Board says preserving it shouldn't be used as an argument for blocking development.
In a controversial ruling, the OMB has approved a plan by a U.S. construction and paving company to establish a quarry along a rugged section of Lake Superior shoreline near Wawa.
Although the board conceded that the coastline is a national "treasure," it said property rights should take precedence over any claims for land preservation.
"The lake and its rugged coastline are a treasure and the number and extent of the provincial and national parks and nature reserves [in the area]is a testament to how important the lake is to the citizens of Ontario and Canada," the board said. "These facts do not in effect give the board or anyone else the right to say to a private land owner you live on a beautiful lake give up your right to development so that we may maintain what we consider a pristine wilderness."
The board's decision has angered environmentalists, who say it opens the way for a rush to develop quarries on the last, largely unspoiled area of Great Lakes, the isolated northern shore of Lake Superior.
The area sports high cliffs, rock outcrops draped with lichens, and water so pristine that it can be drunk directly by dipping a cup into the lake. In the summer, it is a mecca for sea kayakers, and historically, it was used as a backdrop for Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson.
But it is the rocks that are the big attraction for aggregate producers. The rugged coastal areas have deposits of 2.5 billion year old granite, rock that can be used as a premium additive to asphalt and cement. The Ontario government has identified 15 sites in the region that would be of potential interest to the aggregate industry.
"What's going to stop the next mine and the next mine and the next mine along that coast? That's the really scary part. That's the part that really gets you in the gut. It just seems wrong," said Ric Holt, president of Gravel Watch Ontario, a conservation advocacy group that opposes quarry development.
Mr. Holt said the fight over the Wawa quarry has been one of the most important in Canada because of the precedent it would set. It is extremely difficult to open new quarries because of their large scale impacts. Two years ago, the Nova Scotia government turned down a similar proposal for a quarry by a U.S.-owned company in Digby Neck on environmental grounds.
Under the OMB ruling, Superior Aggregates Co., a division of Michigan-based Carlo Companies, is to be issued a licence for the quarry from the Ministry of Natural Resources, a process that usually takes 30 to 60 days.
Two factors that the board cited in favour of the project were that the company will run the quarry only 12 hours a day, rather than 24 hours as it first proposed, and it is cutting the size of the gash in rocks facing the lake to 20 metres from 30 metres.
The company expects to begin production from the site next year, said Richard Ives, a vice-president at Superior Aggregates.
Mr. Ives said rock from the area has attributes of extreme hardness and, when ground, fractures in a way that allows it to bond better with cement and asphalt. On roads and airport runways, the rock provides more skid resistance and increased safety .
Although the OMB ruling indicated the company would sell most of the gravel from the quarry in the U.S., Mr. Ives said Superior is looking to market at least half of it in Ontario, with the Toronto area the biggest potential market.
The possibility of using part of the Superior coastline on Toronto roads has arisen as a consequence of environmental legislation: the province's creation of a greenbelt around the GTA.
The greenbelt has placed off limits land that might have been developed into quarries, creating a market for gravel producers from outside the region.
Mr. Ives disputed the view that the company is spoiling a wilderness area because its site had previously been used as a dock for shipping iron ore to steel mills in Sault Ste Marie.
But Mary Jo Collen, who owns a cottage on Michipicoten Bay near the proposed quarry, said she was dismayed that it has been given the go-ahead. "It's an incredible coast ... That's a roadless wilderness. It's the only place like this anywhere."