Don’t expect an even break in this Ontario


Let me tell you how things work in Mike Harris’s Ontario, if you have environmental concerns. With our neighbours, we’ve just been through a two-year fight to have modest controls put on noise from a nearby quarry.

We were mildly successful, but only because we persevered — and that’s the problem: procedural rules tilted the playing field; we were always working uphill.

For instance, in an appeal against the terms of a government permit, we got two days to respond to a government lawyer’s legal brief. The lawyer got two weeks to respond to ours. Stuff like that.

We didn’t want much. There are a lot of gravel pits in our area, and we thought the quarry should operate as they do.

We thought it should close down at 7 pm. on weekdays. (We won that point.) We thought it should close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays, and all day on statutory holidays. (We lost both points.) And we wanted the government to put limits on noise. (The Ministry of the Environment eventually set limits, and although we think they they aren’t stringent enough, they aren’t so permissive that they’ll drive us completely mad.

One big issue was our claim that Belican Holdings Ltd., the quarry operator, violated the building bylaws of our local municipality, the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, by erecting a big, noisy, million-dollar processing plant, instead of the $161,000 building that, according to the building application, was only « to keep machinery dry and inventory dry.’’

The plant had drying kilns, pulverizing machines, conveyor belts, big exhaust ducts to accommodate high-powered fans, and a high, concrete silo with a loading dock underneath for transport trailers.

Sandstone was mined in the quarry, crushed and then pulverized into a fine powder, dried in the kilns, stored in the silo, loaded into trucks and then, according to company president Dave Durrett, shipped to the United States for use in manufacturing fibre optic cables. He said the powder was almost pure silica.

We argued that because the plant was built without authority, and was smack inside the tiny hamlet of Ellisville, there was an obligation on township councillors to control noise. However, they said they had no authority to do anything because the ministry was in charge.

We then asked the ministry to order changes, but officials said they were powerless because they had not yet issued an operating permit, called a certificate of approval, which would give them authority to act.

So we pointed out that the Environmental Protection Act forbids a company to operate without a certificate. They said it didn’t matter. They wanted the company to operate because they had ordered noise studies to determine what controls were necessary. They couldn’t prepare a certificate without knowing what controls to specify, they said. It was like getting caught on a crazy merry-go-round.

And so it went on for 14 months until a certificate was finally issued.

By then, however, the company had gone out of business. It had closed down a month earlier, not because of anything we had done, Durrett assured us in a letter, but because of « economics.’’ Belican would sell the quarry, he said, and move to « Utica, Illinois’’ (sic).

Nevertheless, we appealed the ministry’s certificate and were given five days to file our arguments. The ministry lawyer got two weeks to file hers, which were contained in three binders totalling 152 pages. Then we got two days to respond.

I think we did a pretty good job, despite being so pressed for time, and I’m not sure we could have done better with more time, even though we were up all night to meet the two-day deadline at the end.

What really angers me is the double standard, where the company got kid-glove treatment, and ordinary citizens got a bare-knuckled back of the hand at every procedural step along the way.

So that’s how it works: don’t expect an even break in Mike Harris’s Ontario. But don’t give up,  either.

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