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Toxic recycling to become more common at gravel pits, watchdog group warns

Residents’ concerns about the health hazards of concrete recycling that went unheeded in the battle over the Jigs Hollow gravel pit may become more prevalent as the province looks to expand the largely unregulated practice.

Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) for 2014 calls for more processing of potentially toxic asphalt and concrete at gravel pits, raising alarm bells at Gravel Watch Ontario, a coalition of Ontario community and environmental groups.

The concerns were also raised at last week’s Woolwich council meeting by Coun. Bonnie Bryant, an outspoken critic of gravel pits who pushed to exclude recycling at the pit in the Winterbourne Valley. That project was the subject of protracted negotiations over the term of two councils and involved legal action at the Ontario Municipal Board before being approved, recycling and all.

Aside from noise and dust issues related to recycling, opponents cite health concerns linked to crystalline silica, a carcinogenic substance often associated with respiratory illnesses such as silicosis.

Reacting to the new provisions, Gravel Watch issued a statement this week outlining concerns such as the threats posed by toxic contaminants being dispersed in large quantities into the air and leaching into groundwater, wells and farmland.

“Recycling of aggregate materials can be a good thing, and is important in conserving the resource. But it’s a major industrial land use with significant negative impacts, and should only be located on lands appropriate for Class III Industrial use,” said Ric Holt, the group’s president. “Many materials being reprocessed contain toxic waste. The stone, sand and gravel are contained in construction and demolition waste, concrete, asphalt, shingles, toilets and other materials. These materials should never be processed in sensitive locations.”

His concerns were echoed by West Montrose’s Tony Dowling, no stranger to Woolwich’s gravel fights and now vice-president of Gravel Watch.

“Recycling sounds very green, but we have to realize that it is reprocessing of industrial waste,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

The new policy statement opens the door to inappropriate locales, he said, noting the places where aggregate is being extracted are not necessarily the best place for recycling it.

Dowling said the group is looking to the province to explain the vague language in its new policy, specifically the idea that recycling will be carried out “wherever feasible.”

“The hope is to try to firm up what ‘wherever feasible’ means,” he said, noting that ideally that would mean not just where it can be done, but where it’s a good idea to carry out recycling safely.

For the operators, it’s efficient to do the recycling at their pits, but that’s not necessarily what’s good for the public, he added.

Beyond the risks of dealing with potentially harmful materials, there’s also the issue of recycling extending the lifespan of pits and quarries beyond the extraction period.

This has implications for the business model of the pits: recycling is profitable, so operators may be in no hurry to close up the pits even though the aggregate is played out, Dowling suggested, noting attempts at attaching sunset clauses to aggregate licences usually don’t hold up.

In that light, Gravel Watch is concerned that inclusion of waste reprocessing facilities in pits and quarries will lead to these industrial sites never being rehabilitated and operating in perpetuity on rural lands.

The clause promoting the location of recycling facilities in pits and quarries did not appear in government documents presented during the public consultation on the PPS, Gravel Watch charges.

“To add this clause just prior to publication, without any public consultation, is completely unacceptable,” said Holt. “We strongly recommend that the government conduct a thorough independent study on the potential impacts of waste reprocessing in pits and quarries.”

Dowling said the policy looks like a “done deal” for 2014, but the effort now will be to have changes made at the next review.

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