The need for aggregate puts the GTA between a rock and a hard place – by Renata D’Aliesio (Globe and Mail – December 10, 2011)

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Deep beneath vast fields that grow a dozen varieties of potatoes lies a valuable gray rock tinged with light browns and blues. The rock is hard, durable and dense, part of the 400-million-year-old Amabel Formation that once belonged to a warm, shallow sea.

To Toronto’s high-rise condominium developers and road-construction engineers, this high-quality limestone, known as Amabel dolostone, is an invaluable ingredient in the making of superior concrete and asphalt. Builders turn to it when they need to make the sturdiest of structures. The CN Tower, Highway 401 and Pearson International Airport all contain bits of Amabel dolostone.

Yet this precious rock, a building block of the ever-growing Toronto region, is at the heart of a quarry battle of the likes never seen before in Ontario. Quarries are almost always controversial. No one wants to live near an industrial pit with loud blasting, thick dust and a steady stream of big trucks. But the fight over the proposed Melancthon Quarry, about 120 kilometres north of Toronto, is different.

Unlike previous conflicts over quarries that tended to remain largely local schisms, the Melancthon battle has reverberated far and wide. The effort to stop the massive pit has united farmers and urbanites, renowned Toronto chefs and aboriginals, environmentalists and affluent entrepreneurs. Michael Wilson, a former federal Conservative cabinet minster and one-time Canadian ambassador to the United States, is also voicing concern.

The mega-quarry has also touched off a broader debate about aggregate development in Southern Ontario. The Greater Toronto Area consumes about one-third of the crushed stone, gravel and sand used in the province each year. But with Southern Ontario spattered with residential subdivisions, industrial yards and sprawling farms, is the country’s most populous region simply too developed to accommodate large new excavations? Are the social and environmental costs too great?

Some opponents of the Melancthon project suggest many parts of Southern Ontario have reached a tipping point, contending it’s time to look to the province’s less-developed north for rock and gravel. But such a move would hike the construction material’s price, increasing the cost of building condos, roads and schools, the industry maintains. An analysis completed for the provincial government concluded aggregate delivery costs would more than double, as would associated greenhouse gas emissions.

“We live in this kind of contraction, it seems to me,” said Anders Sandberg, a York University environmental studies professor who has studied quarry conflicts. “I think [opposition to quarries] is escalating as the countryside becomes more gentrified, as more and more retired professional people move into this particular area.

“At the same time, the demand for aggregates will remain high.”

A pit five times the size of High Park

When The Highland Companies began buying up farmland in Melancthon and Mulmur townships a few years ago, it suspected a rich deposit of limestone lay below the earth, but few farmers were aware of Highland’s quarry ambitions. As the firm probed for Amabel dolostone, potatoes, barley, alfalfa and other crops grew in fields above. Today, Highland is the province’s top potato producer.

While it plans to keep farming, Highland has submitted an application to the province to develop a limestone quarry. The pit would be mammoth, converting as much as 765 hectares of Ontario’s finest farmland into one of the largest rock mines on the continent – nearly five times larger than High Park. Highland pledges the natural resource, one billion tonnes of it, would be excavated in stages over 50 to 100 years. Land no longer needed for mining would be restored to farmland as soon as possible, said company principle John Scherer.

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