Can a green gravel certification solve the controversies over aggregate in Ontario? It had better, because it may be the only way out of our current mess.
Though she doesn’t say so, Andrea Bourrie could be forgiven if she felt skeptical going into her first meeting with Rick Smith. After all, Bourrie is director of planning and regulatory affairs for Holcim Canada, operator of Ontario’s Dufferin Aggregates and one of Canada’s largest stone, sand and gravel companies with 25 quarries nation-wide. And as the executive director of Environmental Defence, Rick Smith’s usual job is to fight the plans of companies like Holcim. His organization is embroiled in five gravel fights at the Ontario Municipal Board, and Smith himself was singled out by the OMB for his failure to present a nuanced understanding of the issues during Caledon’s Rockfort quarry hearing. The OMB categorically stated that its decision to quash Rockfort was no thanks to “ill-informed rhetoric like that of Mr. Smith.”
So Rick Smith is not the first person you might expect to help broker “peace in the sandbox” in Ontario’s heated gravel wars. But his participation does add eco-cred to the result: the June announcement by Holcim and Environmental Defence that they had agreed on draft principles for a green-label certification for aggregate, and formed the non-profit SERA (Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregates) to implement it.
Following in the footsteps of the successful Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for wood and paper (SERA’s new executive director, Lorne Johnson, is a former chair of FSC Canada), SERA’s aim is to turn their “straw man” standards into an independently auditable, FSC-style certification by the end of next year.
The sooner they can do it, the better, because the aggregate debate in Ontario is boiling over. Quarry fights rage province-wide, and dwarfing them all is the Highland Companies’ fiercely controversial application to blast the 2,300-acre, 200-foot-deep Melancthon Quarry on prime farmland in Dufferin County. For the first time in history, anti-quarry signs are showing up in downtown Toronto, and local quarry stories are making international news and circulating widely on Twitter and Facebook. An anti-quarry petition posted on the website Avaaz.org in July pulled in 110,000 signatures in three days.
The 2010 State of the Aggregate Resource in Ontario Study (SAROS), published by the Ministry of Natural Resources, suggests that because of competing land uses, suitable quarry lands may be running out. The report found that “93 per cent of unlicensed bedrock resources have overlapping environmental, planning and agricultural constraints.” Of the remaining 7 per cent, 91 per cent are located in eastern Ontario, far from major markets.
The Highland Companies is framing the debate as one of stark choices. To quote its recent video: “We can stop building for the future. We can keep growing but rip apart more of the [Niagara] Escarpment… We can bring in rock from hundreds of kilometres away, at vastly higher economic and environmental cost. Or, we can develop the Melancthon Quarry.” Presented with a set of options that are all, frankly, crap, more and more people are asking if there isn’t a better way. A certification standard for green gravel could be the answer.
Ontario’s aggregate policy gets most of the blame for this massive conflict by aiming, above all, to maintain a cheap supply close to major cities. Recognizing the necessity of aggregates and the high cost of transporting them, the Provincial Policy Statement directs municipalities and the province to ensure that “as much of the mineral aggregate resources as is realistically possible shall be made available as close to markets as possible.”
To this end the PPS dictates that municipalities identify aggregate reserves and protect them from other forms of development; that quarry applications are not required to demonstrate a need or undergo any type of supply/demand analysis (as is required for major developments under the Environmental Assessment Act); and that prime agricultural land may be developed for aggregate, in many cases with no responsibility for returning the land to agriculture.
Critics say these policies amount to an enshrined government subsidy for urban sprawl and have produced a cascade of similarly aggregate-centric legislation, such as the 2005 Greenbelt Act’s protection of aggregate extraction as an accepted rural land use, and laws allowing quarrying to be considered in 30 per cent of the Niagara Escarpment and 50 per cent of the Oak Ridges Moraine.
The 1989 Aggregate Resources Act, which sets the conditions for approval of new quarries – and is considered by the MNR to preclude the need for review under the Environmental Assessment Act – is another part of the problem. Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gord Miller says the process set out in the Act is “not consultative by nature” and that it “moves inexorably towards [quarry] approval, despite the potential environmental impacts and the legitimate concerns raised by municipalities, citizens’ groups and individuals.”
The effects of these policies play out in battles all over Ontario. In 2005 the fight over Dufferin Aggregates’ application to expand its Milton quarry concluded in what an industry report called “one of the longest and most costly hearings in Ontario’s environmental history.”
Last year, environmentalists celebrated the OMB’s rejection of the Rockfort Quarry expansion in Caledon (the subject of Rick Smith’s “ill-informed rhetoric”), but the fight can also be interpreted as lose-lose. The Coalition of Concerned Citizens of Caledon fought for 14 years, spending 350,000 volunteer hours and close to $1.8 million, money eaten up by legal and consulting fees as quickly as it could be raised through garage sales and golf tournaments.
“Both sides went away thinking, ‘Oh my god, this was not a way to spend our money,’” said Ric Holt, executive director of Gravel Watch Ontario. Gravel Watch acts as a kind of umbrella organization and information clearing house for gravel issues in Ontario, and has produced several information guides to aid local activists.
In Flamborough, near Hamilton, residents have been fighting for nearly eight years against St. Marys Cement’s plans for a limestone quarry on Greenbelt lands with the highest protection level. They thought they’d won last year when the province stopped the project with a rare Ministerial Zoning Order, but now St. Marys has responded with a legal challenge at the Ontario Superior Court, and its Brazilian-based owner, Votorantim Cimentos, has sued the federal government for $275 million under NAFTA rules. It’s another one of those cases where lawyers and consultants are the only true winners.
Meanwhile near Duntroon, opponents to an application to expand the Walker Aggregates quarry are holding their breath for a ruling on the exhaustive, four-sided, 14-month OMB hearing that wrapped up in June. The Clearview Community Coalition stated that the OMB process “has cost far more than we ever could have imagined.”
In Caledon, PitSense continues to fight a proposed 40.5 hectare, below-the-water-table pit at the McCormick Farm on Heart Lake Road. And residents in Mulmur Township are closely watching the Arbour Farms Aggregate Extraction Proposal on Airport Road, which has been in the works since 2001.
Now the Melancthon mother of all mega quarries dwarfs every one of these fights, hoovering up all the media attention and threatening to shed a global spotlight on just how dysfunctional Ontario’s aggregate approval process has become.
Even the long-held belief that the process is a sweetheart deal for industry is no longer true. Environment commissioner Gord Miller says the process is unfriendly to everyone. “The citizens groups, my gosh, it drains the very life out of them. It’s not friendly to the companies because it traps them into a process where they become financially committed at an early stage,” spending millions before they have a chance to get significant public input.
Holcim Canada’s senior vice-president, Bill Galloway, says, “Today you go through your prescriptive process that’s laid out in the regulatory platform and you could be investing all the way through this and then find out on the last day that your pit is either accepted or denied.”
That’s what happened at Rockfort. The uncertainty and cost of fighting for approval at the OMB is motivation enough for industry to seek a more collaborative than combative approach to siting quarries. In Galloway’s words, Holcim wants to “bring clarity to the issue.”
Environmentalists hope to save time and money too. Rick Smith says certification “will be the lens through which we view the aggregate industry. If we think that a proposed aggregate operation is likely certifiable under the standard, it’s doubtful that we would oppose it.”
From an environmental standpoint, certification isn’t perfect. But activists scarred by OMB fights support it, recognizing that a compromise is better than an all-out fight that everyone loses. Clearview Community Coalition president Neill Lanz told SERA that “if the standards translate into even one community group and one proponent avoiding what we just went through, then that is already a big win for everyone.”
“This whole certification idea is a good one,” says Ric Holt. “Now the real question is how to do it, not whether to do it.”
The SERA standards look promising because it’s already possible to identify at least a few quarry fights that would never have happened if everyone had been following them. According to SERA’s concept of “no go” zones, the Flamborough land would be off limits due to its Greenbelt Natural Heritage System status. As would the Clearview site, due to the presence of significant woodlands and endangered species. So, in the words of Gord Miller, who was subpoenaed to testify in Clearview, “We wouldn’t be wasting everybody’s time in the OMB.”
Green gravel seems even more timely when you consider the Forest Stewardship Council started up in a very similar political climate in the 1990s. That was when the clear-cutting of tropical rain forests and Canada’s “War of the Woods” took the international spotlight. Clayoquot Sound became the darling issue that Melancthon mega quarry is shaping up to be. The fledgling FSC held its first general assembly in Toronto in 1993, the same year that Clayoquot’s “Summer of Protest” saw more than 850 arrested for civil disobedience.
The problems were obvious, but it took FSC several years to find the solution. Both sides first had to learn how to listen and to compromise. Early efforts, recalls SERA’s Lorne Johnson, amounted to environmentalists and First Nations talking to each other and making wish lists of standards for forestry companies to follow. This is like the stage in the spousal argument where you think you’ve solved the problem by pointing out all the ways that the other person has to change.
Gravel certification had a similar false start in 2007 when the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance unilaterally launched its “Green Gravel Campaign,” outlining a set of green standards signed by 81 member organizations. An editorial in Aggregates & Roadbuilding magazine roundly dismissed it as “NIMBY in a green cloak,” saying that the environmental groups had “passed up a golden opportunity to work in a collaborative rather than adversarial manner” with industry. At the same time, on the industry side, Holcim Canada was exploring the notion of a quality assurance label for Ontario-produced aggregate similar to the wine industry’s government-endorsed VQA program.
The FSC certification took off when it finally got significant industry players to buy in, which is the stage the green gravel movement hit about two years ago. That is when Bill Galloway and Rick Smith bumped into each other at a planning conference in Mississauga, discovered they had common ground on the certification concept and exchanged business cards. And it is also when the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (OSSGA) started a parallel process called the Aggregate Forum, a round table of industry and six environmental organizations, including Ontario Nature and Gravel Watch.
The FSC example provided the motivation that such unlikely alliances can yield results for both sides – improving environmental practices while making more money for business. By 2001, there were enough companies producing FSC wood products and a big enough consumer demand for green alternatives that Home Depot announced it would stock only FSC wood. With spiking demand for the FSC label, certified companies were virtually guaranteed a market while non-certified players played catch-up.
Market incentive is what gives certification its power, by sparking a “race to the top.” The theory goes that there is a small group of environmental leaders setting the bar for best practices in a given industry that can become easily certified once a green standard is established – Holcim considers itself to be in this class. Certification benefits these top players by making their leadership identifiable in the marketplace. As certification gains recognition, buyers opt for certified product when it is available, and eventually, as in the Home Depot example, switch to buying only certified product.
Complementary certification programs, such as the LEED standard for green buildings, can also help boost the market by offering credits for using certified products. These market changes provide the economic incentive for more companies to invest in meeting green standards. When enough companies are meeting the standards voluntarily, it’s a small step for government to make those standards mandatory.
Both the FSC and its seafood counterpart, the Marine Stewardship Council, have demonstrated this leadership effect on public policy. In its 2009, tenth anniversary report, the MSC gives the example of the hake fishery in South Africa. After MSC standards required all vessels to fly streamers to scare away birds, the government made the streamers mandatory on all fishing trawlers.
This dynamic of industry leading the way to stronger regulation through voluntary standards may be particularly useful for the case of aggregates in Ontario, where, according to Gord Miller, government has always been reluctant to introduce regulations that would affect price because it is also the industry’s largest customer.
Starting out on an entirely voluntary basis, entire industries are being transformed in this way. In 2009 MSC certified fisheries accounted for 6 per cent of the global wild fish harvest – 10 per cent if you include the fisheries under assessment. In forestry, the FSC is credited with shifting much of the environmental dialogue to a collaborative method. Last year, 21 major forestry companies and nine of North America’s largest environmental organizations signed a historic “peace in the woods” document called the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Lorne Johnson, who co-led the negotiations, says, “There’s just no doubt that that agreement never would have happened if it hadn’t been for the FSC.”
Will the same forces transform the aggregate industry in Ontario? At least this new mood of collaboration is the flavour of the day, and not just with SERA, but across the entire industry.
The aims of OSSGA’s Aggregate Forum are essentially the same as SERA’s, but it is proceeding more cautiously. Since first meeting in 2008, it has arrived at a common-ground document called the Change Agenda and commissioned a $100,000 study to help chart a course. That work will include determining whether or not certification is “in fact the appropriate next step,” says Alton resident Moreen Miller, OSSGA’s executive director.
“Respectful and enduring relationships take a lot of time, and they take a lot of effort,” says Miller. “There are quite a few issues that we put in the ‘parking lot’ that are going to take some time to resolve, but we did find a lot of common ground… and one of those was a discussion about a certification process.”
Holcim sat on the Aggregate Forum when it started, but left to launch SERA. The key to developing a robust certification standard, according to Lorne Johnson, is to make the requirements achievable for a critical mass of industry leaders, while keeping them high enough to maintain a “blue ribbon standard.” Both Holcim and Environmental Defence believe that, with so many members to please, OSSGA will fail to hit this sweet spot.
Gravel Watch, which sits on the Aggregate Forum but has also met with SERA, says it’s too early to say where these two parallel processes will lead, and which one will prevail. “We want to keep all our options open. Mainly what we want to do is get the best certification process out there that we can. That’s the higher good,” says Ric Holt.
For all these positive vibes, however, certification is not without its critics, who charge it is often no more than the bureaucratic entrenchment of greenwashing. FSC-Watch, for example, slams FSC for certifying large-scale monoculture tree plantations. That practice recently cost FSC one of its key members, the European environmental group FERN. Yet, even as it withdrew, FERN emphasized that FSC remains the “most trustworthy” forest certification system and that its withdrawal should not be seen as an endorsement of competing labels. The FSC’s success has spawned several imitators, including the PanEuropean Forest Council (PEFC) and the U.S.-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative, but critics say these only “certify the status quo.”
Still, in Ontario’s costly gravel stalemate, certification appears to offer the only ray of optimism. As Andrea Bourrie concluded after her meeting with Rick Smith, “Contrary to what people think, Rick Smith and Environmental Defence are not difficult people to work with. On the other side, the environmental community thinks big business is all scary and horrible, and I don’t think that’s the case. We really demonstrated that if you take the time to get to know people, that if you take the time to really be focused on a solution and listening and not jumping to conclusions, you can chart a new path and you can find a common ground and a common solution.”
Aggregate policy in Ontario is endlessly complex, documented in countless reports and OMB judgments. It will be ironic if what brings the opposing sides together in the end boils down to sandbox rules, that everything we really need to know we learned in kindergarten.
Can a mega quarry be green?
The obvious question and perhaps the litmus test for green certification will be: Could the Melancthon Quarry be certified? With the Aggregate Forum not yet working on certification and the standards set out by SERA (Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregates) only in draft form, it’s premature to speculate whether the 2,300-acre proposal that everyone’s watching could be “green.” But it looks like various sections of SERA’s draft standards would pose a challenge for the Highland Companies, beginning with the requirement for a “collaborative process” of public consultation.
Then there is the list of “No Go,” “Maybe” and “Go Carefully” zones that ban or severely restrict quarry development. Class 1 agricultural land is a “Go Carefully” zone where green quarries would be allowed. But if the Melancthon site were officially designated as specialty cropland – something opponents have been fighting for – it would be off limits. And if the site is deemed to contain “key hydrologic features,” it would be classified as a “Maybe” zone, subjecting it to higher standards.
In any case, SERA’s standards for water protection appear out of reach for a proposal that is struggling to meet the baseline standards set by government. Water and fisheries concerns have motivated Dufferin-Caledon MP David Tilson to launch a petition requesting a federal environmental assessment. And the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has formally objected to the application, stating that Highland’s studies “failed to demonstrate a three dimensional understanding of the geology, hydrogeology and hydrology of the site.” In early September, Ontario environment minister John Wilkinson announced the Highland Companies’ proposed quarry will be subject to the requirements of a “transparent and independent” environmental assessment.
The Melancthon Quarry would have a long way to go to meet green standards, but it could conceivably get certified if the company could apply social and environmental best practices on a mega scale. However, the spectre of a five-kilometre-wide mega quarry on prime farmland earning the green stamp highlights the limitations of supply-side solutions to environmental problems.
Lorne Johnson points out that being “green” according to certification standards is not the same as being sustainable. He notes that FSC long ago decided to drop any reference to sustainability, for example. The SERA standards allow companies to claim that they are “environmentally responsible and socially responsible, which is quite a bit more modest than sustainable,” he says.
SERA’s standards include a section on “resource efficiency,” but they do nothing to address the big questions about what’s driving our insatiable aggregate demand, or what to do about it. The standards say nothing about things like unsustainable government regulations, the bargain 11.5-cents-a-tonne provincial levy on aggregate, aggregate-intensive construction and development practices, and our grow-or-die economics. Green certification still does not require applicants to demonstrate a need, or do anything to prevent stone quarried in Ontario from leaving Ontario, as much of it already does via the Great Lakes.
If we want gravel, the industry may soon be able to serve it to us on a green platter. But unless we want that green gravel coming from a giant grey hole on former farmland, we must also tackle those bigger questions.
Between a rock and a hard place
When it comes to aggregates, we are “between a rock and a hard place,” to borrow the title of one industry report. There is just no easy way around the high demand for aggregates in Ontario.
The literal foundation of our civilization, aggregates are the most used mineral in the world by tonnage, greater even than coal and oil. Ontarians would be champions in an aggregate eating contest. Our annual consumption of aggregate per capita is 14 tonnes, one of the highest in the world, equivalent to about 25 tractor-trailer loads of stone, sand and gravel for each of us in our lifetime. We use three-quarters of it in our roads, buildings, water pipes and sewers.
The 2010 State of the Aggregate Resource in Ontario Study (SAROS) concluded that Ontario will consume 186 million tonnes of aggregate annually for the next 20 years. That’s the equivalent of one Melancthon-sized mega pit every five years.
Virtually every industry observer agrees that we can do a better job of reducing consumption, as well as on recycling and reuse, which only supply about 7 per cent of current consumption. But the SAROS report states that all the recyclable material in the province is already used; more recycling will require more demolition. And even if we reach the high recycling rate in the U.K., at 21 per cent, we will still have a massive demand for virgin aggregate. That 14-tonnes that we each use every year has to come from somewhere.
The SERA Principles
Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregates has released a set of draft standards, agreed upon in principle by Holcim Canada and Environmental Defence. When the standards are finalized and auditable, Holcim Canada will endeavour to certify all 25 of its Canadian aggregate operations. Rick Smith of Environmental Defence says “SERA will be the lens through which we view the aggregate industry. If we think that a proposed aggregate operation is likely certifiable under the standard, it’s doubtful that we would oppose that.”
SERA proposes the following seven principles as a guiding framework:
- Compliance with laws
Aggregate extraction activities (i.e., identification and siting, footprint design, operation and rehabilitation) meet or exceed the requirements of all applicable laws in the jurisdictions in which they occur.
- Community consultation and involvement
Public understanding of aggregate extraction activities is achieved by inclusive and transparent stakeholder involvement in all major steps of the resource development, including siting, footprint design, operations and rehabilitation. No one has all of the answers but collaborative efforts can lead to better solutions, better decisions and better outcomes.
- Respect for First Nations rights and culture
The legal, customary and asserted rights of First Nations peoples to protect their cultural heritage and to own, use and manage their lands, territories, and resources is recognized and respected.
- Benefits to local communities and workers
Aggregate extraction activities maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of local communities and workers.
- Environmental and water impacts and site stewardship
Aggregate extraction activities – their identification, siting, footprint design, operation, rehabilitation, and other ecological initiatives – are designed to protect, restore or improve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and to protect unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and integrity of the area and its connections to the regional landscape.
- Resource efficiency
The efficient use and conservation of aggregates and other resources is achieved by putting them to their highest valued use, maximizing the use of recycled content by looking for alternatives to using high quantities of virgin aggregate and, in the medium to long term, developing optimal transportation networks that factor in both financial and environmental costs.
Systems are in place to track aggregate from certified operations through to its end use.
No go/maybe/go carefully
One of the most clear-cut aspects of the draft standards is a chart that categorizes lands into no go zones where new or expanded aggregate operations could never be certified, and maybe and go carefully zones where development may occur if companies meet certain environmental standards and follow “net gain” provisions whereby any significant habitat that must be destroyed is offset by a 3:1 or 1.5:1 ratio of lands elsewhere. Many of the terms in the table are subject to definitions and exceptions, but here’s a simplified version.
Natural Heritage System “Core”
- Niagara Escarpment Plan “Environment Natural” and “Environment Protection” areas
- Oak Ridges Moraine Natural Core areas
- New Operations in the Greenbelt Protected Countryside Natural Heritage System (NHS)
- Provincially Significant Wetlands
- Life Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest
- Specialty Cropland
- Significant Woodlands
- Areas defined in Source Protection Plans as WHPA–A or IPZ–1
- Significant Wildlife Habitat in NHS Core areas
- Habitat of Endangered and Threatened species, except in accordance with provincial and federal requirements.
Natural Heritage System “Linkage”
- Greenbelt Protected Countryside outside of NHS
- NEP Rural (Plan amendment) areas
- Oak Ridges Moraine Natural Linkage and Countryside areas
- Existing operations in Greenbelt Protected Countryside NHS
- Key hydrologic features
- Significant valleylands
- Sandbarrens, alvars, savannahs, and tall grass prairies
- Habitat of rare and special concern species
- Fish habitat in accordance with provincial and federal requirements
- Areas defined in Source Protection Plans as WHPA–B/E/F or IPZ–2, WHPA–C (in Greenbelt) and designated vulnerable areas subject to study requirements to be defined
- Significant Wildlife Habitat in NHS Linkage areas, subject to a defined removal and replacement approach described in this document.
- Agricultural Land
- Old Fields
- Non-Provincially Significant Wetlands
- Non-significant Woodlands
- Areas defined in Source Protection Plans as WHPA–C (outside Greenbelt)/WHPA–D, or outside WHPAs or IPZs
- Any other lands not covered by “No Go” and “Maybe.”