Skip to main content

A proposed quarry in Melancthon Township has met with a lot of oppositionMatthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail

Deep beneath vast fields that grow a dozen varieties of potatoes lies a valuable gray rock tinged with light browns and blues. The rock is hard, durable and dense, part of the 400-million-year-old Amabel Formation that once belonged to a warm, shallow sea.

To Toronto's high-rise condominium developers and road-construction engineers, this high-quality limestone, known as Amabel dolostone, is an invaluable ingredient in the making of superior concrete and asphalt. Builders turn to it when they need to make the sturdiest of structures. The CN Tower, Highway 401 and Pearson International Airport all contain bits of Amabel dolostone.

Yet this precious rock, a building block of the ever-growing Toronto region, is at the heart of a quarry battle of the likes never seen before in Ontario. Quarries are almost always controversial. No one wants to live near an industrial pit with loud blasting, thick dust and a steady stream of big trucks. But the fight over the proposed Melancthon Quarry, about 120 kilometres north of Toronto, is different.

Unlike previous conflicts over quarries that tended to remain largely local schisms, the Melancthon battle has reverberated far and wide. The effort to stop the massive pit has united farmers and urbanites, renowned Toronto chefs and aboriginals, environmentalists and affluent entrepreneurs. Michael Wilson, a former federal Conservative cabinet minster and one-time Canadian ambassador to the United States, is also voicing concern.

The mega-quarry has also touched off a broader debate about aggregate development in Southern Ontario. The Greater Toronto Area consumes about one-third of the crushed stone, gravel and sand used in the province each year. But with Southern Ontario spattered with residential subdivisions, industrial yards and sprawling farms, is the country's most populous region simply too developed to accommodate large new excavations? Are the social and environmental costs too great?

Some opponents of the Melancthon project suggest many parts of Southern Ontario have reached a tipping point, contending it's time to look to the province's less-developed north for rock and gravel. But such a move would hike the construction material's price, increasing the cost of building condos, roads and schools, the industry maintains. An analysis completed for the provincial government concluded aggregate delivery costs would more than double, as would associated greenhouse gas emissions.

"We live in this kind of contraction, it seems to me," said Anders Sandberg, a York University environmental studies professor who has studied quarry conflicts. "I think [opposition to quarries]is escalating as the countryside becomes more gentrified, as more and more retired professional people move into this particular area.

"At the same time, the demand for aggregates will remain high."

A pit five times the size of High Park

When The Highland Companies began buying up farmland in Melancthon and Mulmur townships a few years ago, it suspected a rich deposit of limestone lay below the earth, but few farmers were aware of Highland's quarry ambitions. As the firm probed for Amabel dolostone, potatoes, barley, alfalfa and other crops grew in fields above. Today, Highland is the province's top potato producer.

While it plans to keep farming, Highland has submitted an application to the province to develop a limestone quarry. The pit would be mammoth, converting as much as 765 hectares of Ontario's finest farmland into one of the largest rock mines on the continent – nearly five times larger than High Park. Highland pledges the natural resource, one billion tonnes of it, would be excavated in stages over 50 to 100 years. Land no longer needed for mining would be restored to farmland as soon as possible, said company principle John Scherer.

Joseph Izhakoff, another Highland principle, said rock from the quarry is required to support growth and construction in the Greater Toronto Area. There are no plans to export aggregate, he added. Provincial projections estimate Ontario's population will increase around 150,000 people a year over the next two decades, adding three million people by 2030. More than half are expected to settle in the Toronto region.

"The province has a need [for aggregate] There are licenced reserves that are diminishing and expiring," Mr. Izhakoff said. "This is a way to, with one project, put forward something that, over a long period of time, will be able to supply high-quality aggregate."

Most opponents of the Melancthon project don't dispute that additional aggregate is needed, but they believe the environmental and social toll of this proposal is too high. They point to the degradation of agricultural land, increased truck traffic and potential harm to water – in the ground and in the rivers. The limestone deposit sits well below the water table. Highland would have to pump up and store as much as 600 million litres of water a day to keep the pit's work surface dry. Ontario's environment ministry has too expressed concerns about the quarry proposal.

Pit opponent Harvey Kolodny, a professor emeritus with the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, has a message for Highland and the province: Look elsewhere for aggregate.

"It's monstrous in size. It's hard for people to comprehend how big the quarry is because nobody has really seen anything of that magnitude," said Mr. Kolodny, founding director of the Citizens' Alliance for a Sustainable Environment. Mr. Kolodny and his wife live in a 19th-century farm house north of Mono Mills, about a 45-minute drive from the proposed quarry.

"It's going to be a major scar on the landscape."

A looming aggregate crunch

As the Toronto region has grown and quarries have closed, conflicts over new rock-mining proposals have become more intense. Rock quarries no longer operate in Toronto. The city's remaining deposit is paved over with development.

Canada's largest working rock quarry is in Milton, alongside the Niagara Escarpment. Provincial cabinet ministers approved a pit expansion in 2006 despite staunch opposition from local environmental groups. The quarry spans 551 hectares.

In more recent years, however, contentious limestone excavation proposals in Caledon and the Hamilton area have been rejected.

Caledon has long been a quarry hub, home to about 1,600 hectares of open pits. But the migration of affluent professionals and retirees from Toronto has changed the town, transforming once-rural land into pricey estates and recreational homes. This group of residents was among the most vocal opponents to a limestone quarry that the Ontario Municipal Board rejected last year in a landmark ruling. The OMB and others questioned whether the Ministry of Natural Resources had adequate staff to monitor the long-term project, which involved extracting stone below the water table.

The Caledon ruling was made not long after the province took an unprecedented measure, using a minister's zoning order to halt plans for a rock quarry in Flamborough near Hamilton. The case has triggered a $275-million arbitration claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement. St. Marys Cement, part of a multinational firm, alleges the quarry application was quashed for political reasons, noting former Liberal advisers live near the proposed pit.

Highland executives have been watching Ontario's shifting landscape for rock mining. Backed by the Boston-based hedge fund Baupost Group, Highland has tracked the progress of a government study of aggregate resources. The review, started in 2007, included bureaucrats, industry representatives and conservation groups.

Concluded last year, the study noted provincial consumption of aggregate is projected to increase 13 per cent, to 186 million tonnes yearly, over the next 20 years compared with the previous two decades. In the past, three-quarters of the aggregate has been used to construct roads and buildings and install water mains and sewer pipes.

Concerns about a looming aggregate crunch in the GTA were raised in the review. Relatively few existing aggregate operations contain abundant reserves. Mega-quarries appear to be a workable option that aligns with Ontario's policy of excavating close to where aggregates are used, the final report stated.

The Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, the industry's main lobbying arm, supports the province's close-to-market goal, especially since many deposits have yet to be touched in Southern Ontario. One of the biggest users of crushed rock, gravel and sand is the Ontario government.

"People in Northern Ontario value their landscapes just as highly as the people that live in Southern Ontario, so I don't believe that moving the extraction farther from where it's being consumed is the right solution in any way," said Moreen Miller, president of the gravel association.

The rub, though, is clearly spelled out in the government-commissioned review: 93 per cent of unlicensed bedrock resources in Southern Ontario have overlapping environmental, planning and agricultural constraints. Friction over quarries is inevitable.

An uncertain future

The constant wave of quarry proposals has made many Southern Ontario communities uneasy. Earlier this year, the province's top 10 aggregate-producing municipalities formed a coalition to push the province for changes, including higher royalties to repair roads, improved oversight of land rehabilitation and better environmental analysis of quarries operating below the water table. The Ministry of Natural Resources is now preparing to review aggregate legislation.

"We've reached a point where the municipalities and the residents are really fighting," said Caledon mayor Marolyn Morrison, vice-chair of the coalition. "There's so many applications coming forward that it has just raised its head."

As a result of the mountain of opposition to the Melancthon Quarry, the Highland application will undergo a provincial environmental assessment, the first time one has been ordered for a quarry in Ontario. The final verdict on whether the Amabel dolostone pit will be allowed to go ahead won't likely occur for years.

Mr. Izhakoff of Highland said it's too soon to say whether the firm's investors would be open to downsizing excavation plans for Melancthon. Highland, he said, wanted to put its entire long-term plan before the public, instead of mining bit by bit, application by application.

"Our view was that this was a very responsible way to do it. Put all our cards on the table," Mr. Izhakoff added.

But many people remain wary, including Michael Wilson, a former federal finance minister and Canadian ambassador to the U.S. from 2006 to 2009. Mr. Wilson's second home, a country retreat in his family for nearly half a century, is about seven kilometres from the proposed mega-quarry. He's worried about how the industrial development will affect the region's agriculture, water and highways.

"There's a significant amount of work that has to be done to understand what the broad impacts are," Mr. Wilson said. "At the very least, if the environmental assessment supports it, then I'd say that the project has to be carried forward in a measured way ... To let that go just full tilt without any controls on it, I think, would be quite irresponsible."