For the second time in three months, Kitchener-Conestoga Liberal incumbent Leeanna Pendergast used the historic West Montrose covered bridge as a backdrop to outline the Liberal party’s plan for gravel pits.
On Tuesday, Pendergast confirmed the provincial Liberals’ pledge to review the Aggregate Resources Act, which was welcome news to a community threatened by the possibility of more pits in their backyards.
“We know that this natural beauty that surrounds us is here not just for us, but for generations to come, and it’s our responsibility to protect our environment,” said Pendergast of the need to balance the needs of the aggregate industry with agricultural and residential concerns.
There are currently 86 gravel operations in the region and another eight at various stages of the application process, including one just 180 metres away from the province’s only remaining covered bridge. A minor regulation review of the act was completed back in 1999 and the last extensive review was conducted in the 1970s.
Pendergast outlined her actions over the past four years that have sought to resolve the issue of gravel extraction in West Montrose and surrounding communities, such as when she brought then-minister of Natural Resources Donna Cansfield to tour the region back in January 2008, and when current minister Linda Jefferey visited the area in July 2010.
“We let her know of our concerns for the environment and our voice was once again heard at Queens Park,” said Pendergast.
The Liberal announcement was met with optimism by the group Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregate (SERA), a not-for-profit organization with the aim of developing third-party audited standards for environmentally and socially responsible sourced construction materials.
“We’re pleased that the Ontario Liberal party intends to build upon the work of voluntary standards initiatives like SERA,” said Michael Fenn, interim-chair of SERA in a release Tuesday.
Tony Dowling was present for the announcement, and the co-chair of the Bridge Keepers Association in West Montrose tasked with preserving the bridge and the historic countryside said the review was critical not only in his community of West Montrose, but the rest of the province as well.
He said the Liberals stand on the issue was one reason why he permitted a red Liberal sign to be put on his front lawn.
“I’m not usually a sign guy, and I would say in the past 24 to 48 hours I’ve made up my mind,” he said after the announcement.
“The NDP and Greens have said they’re in favour of a review but the Conservative Party hasn’t taken a position at all and we’ve been saying before we vote we want to know where you stand but they’ve been saying ‘vote for us then we’ll tell you where we stand’ and that’s been a frustration.”
In a press release distributed by PC candidate Michael Harris’ campaign, the PC party challenged the Liberals plan by accusing Pendergast of “playing politics with pits” and by misleading voters after four years of inaction.
In that same release the party promised to listen to the concerns of the community, be an advocate for local interests, and to work with Woolwich council to see any environmental assessment process brought through.
Robert Rose of the Green Party and Mark Cairns of the NDP both agreed in principle with the review, but said the Liberals have spent too much time talking and not taken enough action on the problem.
“We welcome Leeanna’s attention to the issue, but we have serious doubts about the McGuinty government’s willingness to act,” said Cairns.
In an interview after her announcement, however, Pendergast reiterated her dedication to the issue by saying the time for talk was through and the time for action was now at hand.
“We’re at that precipice where we need to deal with where aggregate goes in the province. We can’t wait, prime farmland is being destroyed, and once it’s destroyed it’s gone.”