Not so long ago, I moved from Toronto to eastern Ontario, where the Canadian Shield defiantly plunges southward, past the watershed of the Gananoque River, where we live, to cast its Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River.
It is land that has been recovering. The forest now has trees that are more than 20 metres tall and 70 years old, and they are just beginning to wonder if they might become old growth maybe 150 years from now. Beavers have created networks of marshes on what used to be rock-studded, low-lying grazing land.
There is a colony of ospreys a kilometre away. The herons have left, the loons on our little lake have almost taught their two young chicks to fly, the woods swarm with the reds and nasturtium oranges of sugar maples, and soon we will hear huge flocks of geese, in their haunting farewell to the gentle days.
It’s a beauty to make the heart sigh, and up until now there has been a balance in the life of our township which has allowed people to earn a living from the land while preserving the quality of life that everyone treasures. However the balance seems about to erode.
As our reeve repeatedly points out, our township — the Rear of Leeds and Lansdowne — has 27 per cent of the gravel supplies in southern Ontario. So there are pits and quarries dotting the landscape. For the most part, they have operated reasonably. But all of a sudden operators want an enormous increase in the scale of enterprise.
Across the road from our local public school, an operator wants to expand operations from 20,000 tonnes a year to 150,000 tonnes. About four kilometres away a granite quarry plans to increase its workforce from five or six people to 60. And another five kilometres away, on the third leg of a triangle, another quarry owner wants to level a sandstone hill and truck out 200,000 tonnes a year of crushed, high-grade silica sand instead of 20,000 tonnes of cut stone.
The crushing operation alone, according to the operator’s own figures, will have a tandem truck passing one way or the other every 3 1/2 minutes on township roads.
When I began asking questions, I didn’t realize that it would raise concerns for everyone in Ontario. Every city dweller who has a cottage or country retreat. Every person who lives the country and cherishes its rural character. Everyone who thinks of retiring back to the land.
My introduction to gravel pit politics came when the Ministry of Natural Resources refused me photocopies of documents giving preliminary approval for increased output at the sandstone crushing quarry. It was the start of a battle for due and fair process that is continuing.
Along the way, I discovered that the government of Premier Mike Harris is trying to tip the scales still further in favour of pit owners. Bill 52 has been introduced in the Legislature to make three major changes to the Aggregate Resources Act. If passed, it will:
• shift the guidelines for granting or refusing pit licences from the Act to the regulations. The difference is that guidelines in the Act are protected from tampering by the party in power. Any changes have to be debated and passed by the Legislature. Guidelines in regulations can be changed by cabinet and without public debate or consultation.
• abolish the Ministry’s duty to regularly inspect pits and quarries. Instead, operators will file annual reports on their operations. In other words, the government expects pit and quarry operators will report on how they are mismanaging their operations.
• remove the public’s right to hearing before the Ontario Municipal Board. Instead the ministry will have the sole power to ask for a hearing. And it will have to sole right to say what issues the OMB can consider.
In our township we are asking « What kind of place to we want to live in?’’ We hope to halt these mammoth expansions until citizens have a chance to debate the issue and come up with answers.
In all of Ontario, I hope people are going to oppose Bill 52 because if it passes, the answer to that question can be made behind closed cabinet doors and handed to pit owners to supervise.