Escarpment is 'on life support'

Oct. 29, 01:11 EDT
Escarpment is 'on life support'
Approval of Dufferin expansion defies Niagara Escarpment Plan
Joan Little
The Hamilton Spectator
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 centre.

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 extraction.

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 with conditions."

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 greenhouse gases.

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 fame).

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 and landscape").

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" conditions.

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 decision.

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.

Contact COPE:

©copyright 2002 - 2012 COPE

The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
Website design and hosting by Virtual Image Hamilton: