Escarpment is 'on life support'
| Oct. 29, 01:11 EDT
|Escarpment is 'on life support'
Approval of Dufferin expansion defies Niagara Escarpment Plan
The Hamilton Spectator
Today's Niagara Escarpment Commission appears to have forgotten
that public outrage in the late '60s --about our Niagara Escarpment
being carted away a truckload at a time -- led to preservation
legislation, followed by a Niagara Escarpment Plan.
Ten days ago, the commission voted 11-5 for a plan amendment
proposed by Dufferin Aggregates to allow huge quarry expansions
just east of Hilton Falls Conservation area, straddling the
Milton/Halton Hills Town Line north of Campbellville Road.
Dufferin's Milton Quarry is home to the infamous "Dufferin Gap"
blasted through the escarpment, and visible from Highway 401
and miles around. The quarry has eight to ten years of aggregate
left. The aggregate is high quality, and cheap to extract because
it is so close to the escarpment surface.
Dufferin recently acquired more land, and wants to add 82.5
hectares (205 acres) of escarpment to its licence. It plans
to excavate in phases, starting west of Town Line in 2007 and
finishing east of Town Line about 2020. It anticipates a yield
of about 60,000 tonnes of aggregate (66,000 tons) from the expansions.
Dufferin's current licence covers 468 hectares (1,156 acres),
with no tonnage limit on the 382 hectares (844 acres) under
At its Oct. 17 meeting, the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC)
considered a stack of documentation more than two inches thick,
including letters of support and opposition. The thorough staff
report described the potential for significant social and environmental
disruption. It recommended the NEC oppose Dufferin's amendment,
but added a strange corollary, "alternatively, if the staff
recommendation is not accepted, that the NEC approve the amendment
Commissioner Robert Boraks questioned that extraordinary recommendation.
Planner David Johnston responded that he had been directed to
word it that way because of the complexity of the application.
A battery of Dufferin consultants explained its proposal. In
what appeared a highly orchestrated parade, employees asked
for assurances their jobs would not end, the union made presentations,
and customers wrote and appeared in droves. Many lauded the
company's generosity to the Milton community, but what does
that have to do with the environmental effects of redesignating
more escarpment lands for excavation?
Citizens noted the application might benefit Dufferin, but was
fraught with technical problems that would endanger Ontario's
prestigious UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. They presented petitions
and cited the onus on private citizens living on the escarpment
to meet stringent Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP) requirements.
Dufferin's position was that the GTA needs aggregate and the
escarpment provides high quality at a reasonable price. Further,
it would agree to redesignate rehabilitated quarry land (now
a wetland) and add adjacent vacant lands -- about 130 hectares
(321 acres) -- to the Niagara Escarpment Plan. Its proposal,
a representative stated, supported the Kyoto Protocol and Smart
Growth, because haulage would be shorter, saving fuel and reducing
That argument could justify building subdivisions on the escarpment
near the GTA, too. But the NEP is about preserving a World Biosphere
Reserve more important now than ever, with the influx of growth
to the GTA. (A Dufferin spokesperson conceded some of that aggregate
could even be available for the Mid-peninsula Highway.)
The purpose of the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development
Act is "to provide for the maintenance of the Niagara Escarpment
and land in its vicinity substantially as a continuous natural
environment, and to ensure only such development occurs as is
compatible with that natural environment."
Of the issues identified, two were particularly troublesome.
First was the "adaptive management plan" required to handle
Dufferin's ground water. Wetland habitat on the site supports
a population of nationally threatened Jefferson's salamanders,
and Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSIs) and Environmentally
Sensitive Areas (ESAs) abound in the vicinity.
Excavation would occur below the water table, requiring dewatering.
Sucking out all that groundwater could have a detrimental effect
on the ecosystem; so a complicated system of 126 recharge wells
is proposed, to return that water to the ecosystem. The system
would require ongoing active monitoring and maintenance (and
pumping where necessary) in perpetuity, raising long-term environmental
and financial concerns.
Dr. Stephen Worthington, an expert on how water travels through
dolostone (escarpment rock), and whose conclusions were proven
correct on the subject at the Walkerton inquiry, disagreed with
Dufferin's consultants on the system proposed.
Loss of the continuous escarpment corridor was a second major
concern, prompting Dufferin's offer to add other lands to the
Niagara Escarpment plan.
One biologist noted the adjacent wetlands complex supports five
migratory birds extremely rare in Halton and significant either
nationally or provincially, and two endangered mammals, including
the southern flying squirrel (of Red Hill Valley Expressway
The NEP allows new licenced quarries producing over 20,000 tonnes
(22,000 tons) annually in its "rural" designation, subject to
a plan amendment. That does not mean approval. It means an application
is weighed against plan policies to see if it passes the tests.
"Does," says Dufferin. "Doesn't," say NEC planners. The commission
sided with Dufferin.
An agency review team of Halton region, Halton Hills, Milton,
and Conservation Halton discussed the issues and supported the
amendment, subject to a long list of conditions and legal agreements.
Although it believed the theory behind the long-term water management
strategy was sound, it commented "it is still unproven at this
scale, and represents a significant engineering manipulation
of natural ecological processes in perpetuity".
The NEC's mandate is to protect the escarpment, and one criterion
for development is that "the cumulative impact of development
will not have serious detrimental effects on the escarpment
environment (e.g. water quality, vegetation, soil, wildlife
Johnston's report stressed "what is of concern is that the escarpment
continues to be looked upon as a major source of aggregate.
Engineering solutions of this magnitude run counter to the natural
ecologic processes and principles encouraged and promoted in
the plan corridor."
The commission heard delegations for five hours. Dufferin's
offer to add adjacent lands to the NEP impressed commissioners.
Boraks, however, referred to "a mechanical system keeping the
ecological system alive in perpetuity -- the escarpment on life
support." Commissioner Richard Paterak (Peel region) likened
it to keeping the escarpment alive on a Jarvik artificial heart.
Only five commissioners supported the planning report and opposed
Dufferin's huge expansions: Boraks and James Rainforth (appointed
at large), Paterak, Ian Lang (Simcoe County) and Rob Nicholson
(Niagara Region). The other 11 supported expansions conditional
on better assurances about the water manipulation system (financial
and environmental) and that the final amendment include the
transfer of other Dufferin lands to the plan.
This is 'Let's Make a Deal' planning, and sets the NEC up for
other big quarry applications. LaFarge Canada, one of Dufferin's
competitors, owns 65 hectares (160 acres) of "escarpment rural"
land immediately to the south.
The next step is a Joint Board hearing (the Ontario Municipal
Board and Environmental Assessment Board) which will make a
recommendation. The final arbiter is cabinet.
I'm pinning my hopes on cabinet. The government needs some "green"
points, and Premier Ernie Eves is on record supporting the Niagara
Escarpment. Surely he can inject some stability into the roller-coaster
ride that has plagued it since 1995.
Prior to the Mike Harris regime, the NEC was an agency of the
Ministry of the Environment -- a good fit. Now it's an agency
of the Ministry of Natural Resources -- the same ministry that
hands out quarry licences. In my experience, when escarpment
and aggregate interests have collided, aggregates have won.
I had the privilege of chairing the NEC from 1993 to 1996. Pre-Harris,
its annual budget was about $2.6 million, supporting about 30
employees servicing three local offices between Niagara Falls
and Tobermory. Post-Harris the budget and staff were cut by
about a third, and the Grimsby office was closed. Today this
vital agency struggles to meet its mandate with $1.8 million
and 22 demoralized employees.
Preserving the escarpment receives lip service, inadequate funding,
and questionable political appointees. (Several appear to have
the support of anti-NEC MPP Bill Murdoch (Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound)
who, two years ago, introduced a private members' bill that
could have abolished the NEC and NEP.)
I count only four commissioners today and chair Don Scott who
can be relied upon to support the plan consistently.
Every time the commission approves something not allowed in
the NEP, word spreads. Subsequent applicants refer to it, as
occurred on an application at the last meeting.
I have no doubt the "alternate" Dufferin recommendation appeared
because the administration was nervous this commission would
grant the amendment in spite of the strong planning report,
and feared attending a joint board hearing without "safety net"
John Snobelen, the NEC's minister in December, 2000, directed
a five-year update of the NEP, listing the issues for review.
He set unrealistic deadlines. The NEC had less than 11 months
to research the issues, write discussion papers, seek public
opinion, write planning reports, hear further public input,
and consider subsequent recommendations.
A two-month (summertime) public hearing followed, after which
the hearing officers had to file their recommendations. The
NEC had to consider that report, and respond to the minister
by Nov. 15, 2001. To its credit, it succeeded. Cabinet issues
the final decision. A year later, there is still no cabinet
Escarpment preservation is wonderful value for money, but suffers
because of the quality of political appointees (with some notable
exceptions) and because it needs a budget enabling it to operate
effectively. Until those changes occur I, too, fear the escarpment
is on "life support."
Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little
is former chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission. She does
not identify with any political party. She is a freelance columnist
and her views are her own.
|Toronto Star File Photo
Dufferin Aggregates will be expanding after the Niagara
Escarpment Commission approved a mammoth pit extension
on environmentally sensitive land in Milton, despite
a major public outcry and a staff recommendation to
reject Dufferin's application. More than 100 residents
opposed the plan 10 days ago at the Halton Hills civic
2002 - 2012 COPE