By Hugh Wilkins, staff lawyer

Last Wednesday, groups opposed to the plan to build a mega-quarry in southern Ontario claimed victory as the company withdrew its application. Specifically, The Highland Companies said that “the application does not have significant support from the community…”

To build this mega-quarry, The Highland Companies needed to destroy hundreds of acres of farmland and construction of the quarry would have put local drinking water and endangered species in jeopardy.

Back in June 2011, Carl Cosack and John Herndon took Ecojustice staff lawyer Justin Duncan, senior scientist Dr. Elaine MacDonald and I on a tour of potato farms in Melancthon Township. Carl and John are members of the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT).

The Highland Companies from Massachusetts had purchased 2,300 hectares of prime agricultural land in Carl and John’s community with the intent to create a mega-quarry. The mega-quarry would have been located near the headwaters of several river systems, including the Nottawasaga and Grand Rivers.

If built, it would have extended 200 feet deep and displaced 600 million litres of water daily. It would have be the largest quarry in Canada and the second biggest in North America. And it would have obliterated hundreds of acres of some of Ontario’s richest farmland.

Through the community-based efforts of Carl, John and many others, their protest soon swelled to include concerned citizens across the province. They held community meetings, dinners and other fund-raising and awareness-raising events. Celebrities, musicians and chefs got involved.

As we bumped along the country roads with Carl and John in 2011, the prospects for the community did not look good. They were worried. Water issues, the impacts on endangered species and other environmental issues loomed.

Ecojustice and others provided them legal research, advice and letter writing. We researched species at risk and fisheries issues raised by the quarry proposal, wrote to the Minister of Environment expressing concern regarding Highland’s application for a Certificate of Approval and wrote to the local Water Source Protection Authority and the Minister asking that they exercise their discretion under the Clean Water Act to ensure the private wells in the affected communities were protected. We also urged the local townships to pass resolutions seeking greater water quality protection for their communities.

As we travelled along, we stopped to view some of The Highland Companies lands. Spotting some birds on a wire, I borrowed Elaine’s camera and took some photos. After returning to Toronto, we sent the photos to an ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum. He identified them as the endangered bobolink, listed as an at-risk species in Ontario. Soon we started to get calls about these photos.

Michael Chong – a federal Minister of Parliament – contacted us for copies of the photos and formally requested that the federal Minister of the Environment to conduct an environmental assessment of the quarry proposal.

This week, Highland withdrew its application. But the fight may not be over. There’s no guarantee that Highland will not sell its land to another quarry developer or try a new strategy. NDACT says it will keep the fight going.

They want to see the province’s Aggregate Resources Act and Provincial Policy Statement are strengthened to ensure adequate protection of prime agricultural lands. They want to make sure that communities have a stronger role when decisions are being made on quarry developments and to protect their access to clean and safe drinking water.

Both the Aggregate Resources Act and Provincial Policy Statement are presently undergoing review by the Ontario government. Ecojustice, along with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, has made formal submissions urging stronger protections in the revised Provincial Policy Statement.

We want the government to prohibit new or expanded aggregate operations in certain lands and to impose more stringent planning and approval requirements for new or expanded aggregate operations in lands or areas where such operations may be permitted.

Congratulations to our friends in Dufferin County on a job well done.