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Ford’s word aside, gravel pit process has gone against public’s will

Premier Doug Ford’s pledge to block an unpopular aggregate mine proposed for the Cambellville area was not only heartening for opponents of that project but has become a rallying point for other Ontarians fighting to keep gravel pits out of their communities.

A group called ActionMilton (Association of Citizens Together in Our Nassagaweya) pressed for the applicant to withdraw its bid after Ford assured residents the project would be quashed.

“I am not in favour of (the Campbellville quarry). I believe in governing for the people. And when the people don’t want something you don’t do it. It’s very simple. I know the Mayor doesn’t want it, no one wants it. I don’t want it. We are going to make sure it doesn’t happen one way or another,” Ford said in an August visit to Milton.

Figuring that the same logic applies equally to Woolwich, residents opposed to a plan for a pit near Maryhill argue there’s no public support here, meaning the application should be dead in the water.

It’s unlikely to be that simple, but the reasoning makes sense. Where township council stands on the matter has yet to be decided. The same is true whether or not the Ministry of Natural Resources will run roughshod over local opposition, which is the historical norm.

The provincial process for reviewing gravel pits – under the auspices of the Aggregate Resources Act – has long been a mess, a process that bypasses the public interest.

The province has set up a system whereby it can distance itself from unpopular decisions, essentially creating a third party that can force through poor policies.

Of course, this is done to allow the few to benefit at the expense of the many, the overriding reason for our political and economic system.

In the case of gravel pits and other unpopular developments, the argument is made that the process is necessary to prevent NIMBYism: if every decision sided with the public, nothing would ever get done, including some things that are necessary. This attitude says the need for gravel overrides the health, safety and quality of life considerations of those who live near pits.

Ford’s statement is in direct opposition to his own governments previous attempts to loosen restrictions on the aggregate industry. How that plays out will be worth watching, suggests Bryan Smith, president of Gravel Watch Ontario.

“The premier has been a bit of a loose cannon here,” he says of Ford’s comments about the Campellville pit and the public opposition being reason to block it.

“Multiple groups have seized on this statement. If that applies there, does that also apply in their cases?”

The process has long been tilted against the public, says Smith, who got involved in the issue over plans to convert an old pit near Ingersoll into a landfill site.

The poor provincial record of respecting local wishes is magnified in the case of gravel pits, where the Aggregate Resources Act is practically a cudgel, and the Ministry of Natural Resources seen as a defender of operators, not Ontarians.

Of course, we do need gravel, and it does have to come from somewhere. Because of its geography, this stretch of the province is rife with aggregate, as witnessed by the numerous pits already in operation. If every application for an extraction licence was turned down, we’d have to find alternative sources for an essential material. Right now and for the foreseeable future, that’s not an issue.

Smith notes that the province’s own studies show that already licensed pits have enough gravel for a hundred years, negating arguments that we need more pits.

Likewise, the industry’s claims for the need to open new operations close to where the demand is also don’t hold water, he says.

All things being equal, siting aggregate extraction as close to market as feasible is good policy; however, all other things are often not equal.  More often, the closer an extraction site is to the high-demand, the closer they also are to densely populated communities, Gravel Watch argues.

What’s more, the industry has no problem trucking in from long distances materials to be used in its asphalt- and concrete-crushing operations, nor to exporting materials.

The standard arguments just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

There’s also a very practical reason for the township to turn down gravel pit applications: the costs are higher than the revenues Woolwich receives. Municipal share of aggregate profits are miniscule, not enough to cover the direct costs associated with road repairs and safety measures, let alone the health and well-being of residents.

There are plenty of downsides to aggregate mining, Gravel Watch and other opponents point out. Such operations bring with them noise and vibration; increased traffic; dust and air quality impacts; destruction of farmland; threats to groundwater, surface water, wells and the natural environment; intrusion into cultural heritage resources; and many other negative impacts.

Currently, provincial policies favour developers, putting far too much power in the hands of quasi-judicial tribunals. Opponents such as Gravel Watch Ontario say the same is true of the aggregate policies. They also lament the actions of the MNR in enforcing what feeble rules do exist. Fixing those inadequacies would go a long way in reducing the disputes over gravel pit applications.

High on the priority list is the enacting of sunset clauses on gravel licences: hard and intractable timelines for the decommissioning of pits. As it stands today, operators can continue to work an “active” site for years, a favourite tactic for avoiding the remediation now required of pit owners. Such a move would assure nearby residents that the health and safety risks would exist for a fixed time only, an important step.

Today, however,  even where municipalities have tried to impose sunset clauses, the MNR has simply stepped in and voided them.

Equally pressing are rules to assure quick and full rehabilitation of pits, returning them to the identical state seen before excavation began. Here, too, the record has been abysmal. Changes haven’t been forthcoming.

In that environment, residents are right to be skeptical about assurances that any violations at a newly-approved pit – excessive noise or dust, pollution of the groundwater, unacceptable visual impacts – will be dealt with in a timely manner. That’s usually not the case. Rarer still are orders to cease operation. Permanent closures are beyond the pale.

We’ll have to see those kind of measures, moves that protect citizens, before anyone believes that the parties, the township included, are working in the public interest.

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