Back in 2006, the investment group Highland Companies began buying land from farmers in Melancthon Township, in Canada’s Ontario province, claiming it wanted to be a major potato producer. Yet it soon became clear to locals that Highland’s intentions were different: It was preparing the site for a mega quarry that would enable the extraction of limestone for road building and construction. The proposed quarry, at 2,300 acres, would be Canada’s largest and the second largest in North America. It is proposed for Canada’s most productive farmland in a region responsible for half of the potato production for the greater Toronto area.
In response, a broad coalition of activists — farmers, Toronto chefs, urban locavores, and environmentalists — have mobilized against the proposal, chiefly on the grounds that it would have disastrous consequences for local food security and water supplies, especially since it is at the headwaters of a river.
“For all farms that are downstream, it’s going affect their ability to have freshwater to irrigate their crops and water their animals,” said Paul DeCampo, the leader of Slow Food Toronto, which strengthens sustainable food networks.
DeCampo and other opponents warn that any water contamination would be irreversible. They expressed concern over how the water will be recirculated into the water table, particularly that it requires pumps to operate in perpetuity. Water that runs into the quarry floor will be guided into collection ponds, from which pumps and wells will allow that water to reenter the water table.
Lindsay Broadhead, a spokesperson for Highland Companies, said that the water used in the limestone extraction process will be safely replenished in the water table. Highland’s investment in the quarry is backed by Baupost Group, a Boston-based hedge fund.
“The water isn’t being consumed; it’s being pumped out and back into the water table,” Broadhead said. “The water isn’t touching any toxin that it wouldn’t otherwise touch.”
She said that the mega quarry would use 3,700 cubic meters of water per day, equivalent to the irrigation used in a single farm irrigation pivot. The 600,000 cubic meters figure — commonly cited by opponents as the daily water usage by the quarry — actually represents the amount of water recirculated into the water table at the end of the quarry’s life, Broadhead said.
Broadhead added that although the quarry amounts to 2,300 acres altogether, only 300 acres will be dug at a time, with previously quarried land being returned to agricultural production. She noted that Highland is the largest potato producer in Ontario, currently overseeing 8,500 acres of farmland.
Still, opponents argue that highly productive farmland that’s so crucial to local diets shouldn’t be subject to industrial use.
From the perspective of food security, opposition to the quarry reflects concerns about food self-sufficiency at a time when climate change and high fuel prices render the global food system highly vulnerable.
“Part of building food security — especially fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of healthy diet — is relying on regional producers,” said Wayne Roberts, the former director of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “This is one of the most productive areas of the world with access to water, which we could destroy with the quarry.”
Particularly worrisome, activists say, is that the extraction of aggregate limestone seems to take precedence over public health.
“Our ask to [the provincial government] is that headwaters — areas that recharge water courses to be used downstream — should never be excavated,” said Carl Cosack, the vice-chair of the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force, the organization formed in Canada to fight the mega quarry. “Farmland should automatically be designated as the last resource to be impacted through industrial development.”
Opponents have already made some progress in contesting the mega quarry’s protections under the Aggregate Resource Act. The Ontario provincial government has announced that the quarry will undergo an environmental impact assessment, marking the first time that a private sector proposal has been subject to such rigorous evaluation. EIAs are typically reserved for government-run garbage dumps and nuclear waste sites. The EIA must include an investigation into the social dimension of the proposed quarry, and this is how opponents hope to show what they believe will be a detrimental impact on local communities.
Despite the far-reaching potential of an environmental impact, its influence may be dampened by a conflict of interest of sorts within the government, according to Mark Calzavara, a representative of the Council of Canadians, the nation’s largest citizens’ advocacy group. The Ontario government itself is the province’s largest consumer of gravel, part of its overall strategy to expand roads through the use of cheap gravel. That means that the Ministry of Natural Resources — responsible for conducting the EIA — may be loath to directly interfere with the government’s plan.
The “State of the Aggregate Resource in Ontario” report, released by the provincial government in February 2010, stated that large mega quarries would be a feasible way of satisfying the province’s annual demand for 186 million tons of aggregate over the next 20 years, given that many of the existing sources are becoming depleted.
Broadhead, of Highland Companies, said that the proposed area for the mega quarry is suitable because it contains precisely the type of rock — amabel dolostone — that meets the province’s building safety standards.
According to Mike Nagy, the chair of the citizens’ group Wellington WaterWatchers, opposition to the mega quarry should be framed in part by challenging the province’s use of limestone for what he sees as inefficient, unfettered urban sprawl. Ontario is the world’s largest per capita consumer of limestone, at 14.5 tons annually per person, and it charges just 12 cents per ton, Nagy said. Nagy said that very little of the aggregate is recycled. Only 13 tons of the 184 million tons used annually are recycled, according to the Ontario aggregate study.
Government and private industry’s tendency to link gravel use with economic growth — and, by extension, to justify limestone quarries — serves to mask communities’ right to safe water, Nagy said.
Photo Credit: Daniel Bornstein