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You can't eat gravel

Tue, 12/15/2015 - 17:00

15 December 2015

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Policy Division
Natural Resources Conservation Policy Branch
300 Water Street
Peterborough ON K9J 8M5

Attention:  Katie Rosa, Aggregate Resources Officer, Resource Development Section

Dear Ms. Rosa

Re:  A Blueprint for Change:  A Proposal to modernize and strengthen the Aggregate Resources Act policy framework (EBR Registry Number 012-5444)

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the document, A Blueprint for Change, regarding proposals to modernize and strengthen the policy framework for aggregate applications and licences.

It is time to rebalance the province’s priorities so that the integrity of our farmland, water, public health and natural heritage is protected from the impacts of aggregate extraction. 

For many years the GPO has called for legislative and regulatory changes to aggregate extraction. Although stone, sand and gravel play an important role in constructing our modern lifestyle, it is also clear that pits and quarries increasingly compete with other land uses, resulting in more and more conflict in our communities. 

The Aggregate Resources Act (ARA) needs to be updated to reflect growing social concerns such as clean water, air quality, local food sources, traffic congestion, quality of life and natural and cultural heritage. It must also consider the cumulative impacts when multiple aggregate operations are located in close proximity.

As I mentioned in my submission to the Standing Committee on General Government’s review of the ARA (see Appendix), the province must shift its priorities from the consumption and supply of stone, sand and gravel, to encourage efficiency, conservation and recycling.

Aggregate operations have wide-ranging impacts much broader than the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. So we must implement sustainable, modern resource management practices for the aggregate industry across all affected Ministries, regulations, manuals and legislation. For example, the province should revise provisions in the Provincial Policy Statement such as “close to market” and “no need to show need.” 

Ontario should employ the precautionary principle and implement full cost recovery for managing and regulating stone, sand and gravel. Every effort should be made to mitigate and account for the negative impact of pits and quarries on host communities and the environment. It is especially important for the province to account for the costs of environmental externalities such as degradation of farmland; negative impacts on water resources, natural habitat and endangered species; loss of woodland; loss of natural and cultural heritage features; damage to municipal and provincial infrastructure; negative impacts on health and safety; loss of equity and tax assessment in nearby properties; among others.

The GPO supports supports the four goals of the ARA Review and Blueprint proposal:

  • To strengthen the oversight in the management of aggregate operations;
  • To increase environmental accountability for aggregate sites;
  • To increase and standardize ARA fees and royalties; and
  • To improve information and participation.

Comments on A Blueprint for Change

The GPO believes it is time for the province to conduct an independent, public review of aggregate resource supply and demand. The premise of continuing increases for new aggregate material needs to be re-examined. A Blueprint for Change (“The Blueprint”) argues that demand for aggregates is growing, based on the 2010 State of Aggregate Resources in Ontario study. However, critics argue that the report far overstates the demand, and call into question the report’s integrity based on industry involvement in its preparation. We agree with those who argue that the province should examine whether aggregate demand can be satisfied without licensing new operations. 

Section 1.0 Proposed Changes for Establishing New Sites

The GPO supports enhancing requirements for studying impacts on the natural environment, water, cultural heritage, noise, traffic and dust—though we believe “dust” should be changed to “public health impacts from deteriorating air quality.”

The GPO supports enhancing requirements for water impact studies for extraction both above and below the water table. These studies should include private wells in addition to municipal drinking supply. Aggregate extraction proposals within the 2-year time of travel zone to municipal wells should be denied.

The GPO believes that the province should not permit aggregate extraction on Class 1 farmland or Specialty Crop areas. The province should also deny any aggregate application that proposes below-the-water-table extraction that impacts prime farmland or Specialty Crop areas. We support the proposal for new agricultural impact studies on prime agricultural lands or within prime agricultural areas, though we believe class 4 farmland should be included.

Although the GPO supports the new studies recommended in section 1, we do not support the use of annual extraction tonnage as the only trigger and determiner of the scope of the studies. The province should also consider the existing natural and built environment as far more significant determiners of the degree and scope of studies that should be required.

The GPO supports the proposal to require plain language summaries of project proposals and technical studies. We recommend a definition of of what constitutes “plain language.”

However, this change fails to address the greater need for independent review of application materials. In committee hearings, MNRF officials explained they only check that applications for completion and do not review the contents. The public’s ability to access financial resources to conduct independent reviews should not determine whether these applications are scrutinized for quality and deliverability. The province should provide a mechanism or a fund for an independant review of application documents in the public interest. 

The province needs to enhance requirements for stakeholder notification, engagement and consultation. This concern was voiced over and over by community groups during the ARA hearings. Rather than use annual extraction tonnage limits to determine those requirements, however, the GPO supports prescribed notification parameters for all applicants. The size and scale of an operation does matter, but other variables such as proximity to natural heritage features also matter regardless of size. Public concern should be a factor in triggering an enhanced engagement process.

We also believe that all stakeholders should have the right to request an extended timeframe for comment. The government should put provisions in place to prevent abuse of this option, especially from applicants who often have more resources than community and citizen groups.

The GPO supports more rigorous notification and consultation requirements with indigenous communities.

The GPO strongly supports the proposal to require new applications when the applicant is seeking to move from above water table to below water table extraction.

The ARA may refer public objections to applications to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). This forces the public into a costly and unaccountable process where their participation may result in punitive cost awards. While the GPO is calling for an overhaul or the abolition of the OMB, the MNRF must do more to sincerely address objections in ways that don’t result in punitive cost awards against citizens. 

SECTION 2.0 PROPOSED CHANGES TO THE MANAGEMENT AND OPERATION OF EXISTING AND FUTURE SITES

The GPO believes it is essential for existing aggregate operations to remain current with best practices to minimize negative social and environmental impacts of their operations. Therefore, we support the proposed new provision allowing the ministry to require additional studies, information and updated site plans for existing aggregate sites.

Protecting our drinking water should be a top priority for the provincial government. The GPO supports strengthening of source water protections plans, especially for vulnerable aquifers supplying private wells and municipal drinking water. New, stronger requirements and conditions should apply to existing aggregate sites.

The GPO strongly supports increased recycling of aggregate in Ontario. The province should establish targets and implementation plan to achieve recycling rates similar to jurisdictions such as the UK.

However, we are also want to raise concerns that it is essential to establish a rigorous regulatory system for aggregate recycling operations. Aggregate recycling and reprocessing are ongoing industrial activities. As such they belong in an appropriately zoned industrial location, which often times is not an existing aggregate operation. Aggregate recycling and reprocessing should typically be located close to the source and eventual destination of the reprocessed material. We support the requirement to include recycled and blended materials in annual production reports, with the proviso that total tonnages be subject to tonnage fees.

The GPO is deeply concerned with the importation of fill into aggregate operations because of its potential role in groundwater and surface water contamination.  Although proposed reporting requirements for the importation of fill are a step in the right direction, the GPO strongly encourages the government to develop regulatory conditions and restrictions on the use of fill.

Likewise, the GPO is concerned that aggregate operations have and will continue to submit applications to turn pits and quarries into landfill sites. Such applications are incompatible with pits and quarries as interim land use and the provisions to rehabilitate aggregate operations to be a net environmental gain to the community.

The GPO strongly recommends requirements be included for the progressive rehabilitation of sites within an appropriate timeframe, and that sunset clauses be required for all aggregate applications to ensure that pits and quarries do not morph into permanent industrial sites or landfill operations.

The GPO agrees that current self-compliance reporting system needs to be reformed. However, we are opposed to less stringent reporting requirements and encourage the government to enhance reporting to make it more relevant. We recommend that ministry staff increase onsite engagement and oversight of aggregate operations.

Although the GPO supports efforts to improve efficiency and reduce administration, we also caution the ministry to prevent the potential use of site plan amendments to circumvent more rigorous assessment at the application phase of a pit or quarry.

The GPO supports efforts to improve oversight and enforcement of aggregate operations. Enhanced enforcement will not be effective if the ministry does not have the resources it needs to do its job. Aggregate fees should be set at a level that provides the ministry the resources it needs if the province is serious about protecting the environment and the rights of Ontarians from the impacts of aggregate operations.

Section 3.0    PROPOSED CHANGES TO FEES AND ROYALTIES

The GPO strongly encourages the government to increase fees and royalties to cover the broad range of costs associated with managing and planning for aggregates. Full cost recovery metrics to fully recover costs for municipalities and the province - as discussed in the Drummond Report - should be used to determine the proper rate for fees and royalties. Indexing fees to the Consumer Price Index does not seem to be a relevant measure. Full cost recovery would set fees and royalties at levels that cover infrastructure, administrative, planning, enforcement, rehabilitation, environmental and social costs associated with aggregate operations.

Section 4.0    OTHER PROPOSED CHANGES

Attached you will find the GPO’s written submission to the Standing Committee on General Government for their hearing on the Aggregate Resources Act review. The submission provides a broad and comprehensive set of recommendations for improving aggregate operations in Ontario. Hopefully it will provide guidance for additional reforms moving forward.

Conclusion

The GPO commends the government for agreeing to review the ARA, the Legislature for conducting hearings around the province on the ARA review and the Ministry Team for its work on the Blueprint proposal.

We encourage the government to respect the voices of host municipalities, citizen and community groups, and NGOs who have asked that their concerns be acted upon. In addition to rebalancing priorities, it is time to give the public more input into the policy framework for aggregate applications and licences.

The GPO shares many of these concerns. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Blueprint proposal, and we encourage the government act on our recommendations. 

Let’s not forget that this process started when opposition to the Melancthon Mega Quarry came to a head during the 2011 provincial election. Citizens, both urban and rural, mobilized to raise concerns about the threat to farmland and water from the proposed Mega Quarry. The Highland Companies backed by the Baupost Group, a Boston hedge fund, told its investors that it selected Melancthon Township because of its small population and because “Ontario has the least effective legislative and regulatory framework governing resource extraction in North America.”

This must change.

Municipalities and citizens across the province are raising concerns about the social and environmental costs of aggregate extraction. They are calling on the government to rebalance the province’s priorities so that the integrity of our farmland, water, public health and natural heritage is protected from the impacts of aggregate extraction. 

The time to act is now.

Respectfully submitted on behalf of the GPO,

Mike Schreiner
Leader, GPO

Appendix

GPO written submission commenting on the Aggregate Resources Act review
http://gpo.ca/blog/2012-07-17/gpo-written-submission-commenting-aggregate-resources-act-review