Pit by Pit

As another battle over aggregate mining gears up in Cataract, the question remains: how do we balance our voracious demand for aggregates with the rights of local citizens and nature?

September 20, 2022 | | Features

When you hear the term “mining town,” Caledon doesn’t come to mind. But it should. 

Beneath Caledon’s rolling hills, verdant forests, fertile farmland and many of its rural villages lie vast stores of aggregates, a volume of sand, gravel and stone so huge and so valuable it’s difficult to fathom. 

Attracted to Caledon’s natural-resource bonanza are miners who are already licensed to dig up aggregate from nearly 3,900 acres where enormous excavators work in open-pit mines with permits to scrape out more than 10 million tonnes of sand and gravel annually – though some sites are permitted “unlimited” volumes.

Next to Caledon Village, contiguous pits, many of them brimming with aqua-blue water, stretch to the horizon on land that once supported hardwood forests and creeks, century brick houses, bank barns, livestock, and the families who lived there and cared for their land and their neighbours.

Those pits regularly place Caledon among Ontario’s top aggregate producers. To date, sand and gravel make up most of what is mined locally. But lying untouched, tantalizing those who know the business, is another more valuable and more sought-after prize: stone. And not just any stone, but dolostone from the Amabel Formation, the stone that caps much of the Niagara Escarpment. Stone that is the foundation upon which much of Caledon rests. Stone so tough it’s harder than marble. So tough that millions of years of ravaging geological forces haven’t destroyed it, as the cliffs above the Forks of the Credit prove. Stone that is perfect for making the concrete used to construct tall buildings, buildings like the CN Tower, ones that scrape the sky, and for highways, such as the proposed Highway 413, which will cut across the south end of Caledon. Stone that can’t be excavated – it must be blasted out.

Aerial view of the James Dick quarry southeast of Caledon Village. Photo by Rosemary Hasner.

And that is exactly what Votorantim Cimentos, a Brazilian conglomerate, plans to do. With 2021 net revenues of $22.3 billion (USD) and more than 34,000 employees worldwide, the company intends to apply for a quarry licence next to the hamlet of Cataract. There, Votorantim will riddle the land with holes packed with explosives to blast an 80-foot-deep chasm, well below the water table, blowing up that solid stone into millions of tonnes of crushed rock. 

Access to Caledon’s “grey gold” isn’t unfettered, however. Although the province has mapped 15,000 acres of high priority aggregate resource areas in Caledon, much of it lies within the boundaries of three conservation plans: the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Greenbelt Plan. Even so, Caledon’s ability to balance the demand for aggregates with the needs of nature and local communities has always required tough political resolve and a keenly engaged citizenry.

Often dismissed as NIMBYs, a handful of local citizens are frequently the last line of defence against the combined forces of governments bent on growth, an industry with a skilfully honed message about insatiable need and limited supply, and distant multinational corporations intent on gaining access to rich quantities of a natural resource. Amid these forces, the latest aggregate battle brewing in Cataract will test Caledon’s image of itself with unprecedented intensity.

We need it

Partially in response to Canada’s declining birth rate and tight employment market, the federal government has set targets ranging upward to about 450,000 new immigrants every year. A disproportionate number of them will settle in the Greater Toronto Area, which is expected to see a 41.3 per cent increase in population over the next 25 years. By 2051, Caledon is mandated to triple its population to 300,000. Accommodating these newcomers will require housing, roads and bridges, office buildings and factories, hospitals and schools. All of which require aggregates. The proposed Highway 413 alone will gobble up some 2.4 million tonnes of the stuff. 

Add to this the urgent need to repair aging infrastructure, such as Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, and there is no denying the hard reality that we are utterly dependent on this natural resource. In fact, it is widely reported that after water, the world’s largest demand is not for oil and gas, it’s for concrete, a mixture of cement and aggregate. As the Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association points out, “Aggregate is quite literally the foundation of our economy and society.” 

David vs. Goliath

In Cataract, the looming clash pits a Goliath, Brazil’s Votorantim, against a David, the Forks of the Credit Preservation Group. The historic hamlet is home to the original Canada Dry well and a gracious Victorian red-brick inn. Perched above the Credit River as it courses its way over a magnificent waterfall in Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, Cataract offers its residents few municipal services. Those who live there have private wells and septic systems, they get their mail from old-style mailboxes, and there isn’t much traffic on its trio of streets. 

Although Cataract sits within the boundaries of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, which labels it a “minor urban centre,” the land immediately to the north and west lies outside NEC protection. And this is where Votorantim has amassed some 700 acres of land with the sought-after geological gift of a thin layer of “overburden” atop a treasure: dolostone from the Amabel Formation, grey gold of the highest order.

Heading the charge for the citizens’ group is David Sylvester. Trim, slim, grey-haired and thoughtful, Sylvester says the group has already spent hundreds of volunteer hours and raised thousands of dollars in preparation for what’s expected to be a long, lopsided conflict. Like so many citizen organizations that have gone before, this nascent group is getting up to speed on laws and policies, and amassing data on the usual concerns: noise, dust, truck traffic, and impacts on water and wildlife, as well as on property values.

But Votorantim’s plans for a blasting operation, the first of its kind in Caledon, has introduced a new concern to the mix, something called “flyrock.” Despite the best efforts of explosive experts, faults in rock sometimes cause “flying” fragments of various sizes to shoot through the air. There are recorded cases of flyrock travelling up to 1,000 feet, resulting in damage to property and, tragically, injury and even death for people in its path.

Concern about flyrock resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that it qualifies as a “contaminant” under Canada’s Environmental Protection Act. In response, Ontario updated its Aggregate Resources Act in 2022 and now requires “reasonable measures” be taken to prevent flyrock from leaving a pit when a “sensitive receptor,” such as a house or school, is within 500 metres, a distance more than twice the 200 metres proposed by Votorantim. 

Dreading the behemoth bearing down on his community, Sylvester says, “When there is a hard application with all the devastating details before us, it will feel like a tsunami, especially for those who weren’t prepared for the gravity and immensity of this project.” 

Helping prepare the Cataract group to do battle is Ian Sinclair, one of Caledon’s most seasoned and outspoken councillors. With a graduate degree in environmental planning and a no-bullshit attitude, Sinclair tends to hold forth in wonkish detail about the pressures on Caledon’s countryside. But this veteran of many a political dogfight is armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of provincial and municipal policy, and it’s worth paying attention to him, especially when it comes to aggregates. 

In his 2022 report titled “Land Use Compatibility Policies Related to Aggregate Strip Mining,” Sinclair, who is not running for re-election, pulls no punches. He asserts that current provincial policies mean the rights awarded to aggregate producers completely cancel out the rights of everyone and everything else.

“That is confirmed,” Sinclair writes, “from the cumulative effects of unlimited number of strip mines, unlimited life of strip mines, unfettered mining operations emitting noise, dust, a broad range of adverse effects, minimum tax assessment, no compensation to nearby landowners for their loss of the use and enjoyment of their lands.”

And Sinclair doesn’t think much of the Town of Caledon’s approach either. Citing three recent pit applications, he says the Town’s failed to consider land use compatibility and social impacts, giving the impression that Caledon is “captured by aggregate interests.” 

Sinclair and the citizens of Cataract are far from the only ones apprehensive about the environmental and societal woes associated with aggregate extraction in Ontario. There have been numerous failed attempts to make the industry greener and to level the playing field between those applying for licences and those who oppose them. Most recently, in 2021, the newly established Reform Gravel Mining Coalition launched a petition asking the Ontario government for a moratorium on applications for new or expanding aggregate licences. The coalition’s campaign director, Mike Balkwill, says, “It’s time to hit the pause button, take stock of the full scale of the destructive impacts of this industry and chart a new path forward in our climate-challenged world.” 

Time out

The Reform Coalition reports that the province has licensed the annual extraction of 13 times more aggregates than it uses in a given year, a fact supported by the Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, though it suggests the number is closer to 10 times. What amounts to an oversupply suggests this is a good time to take a breather. Nineteen municipalities, including Caledon, Peel Region, Mulmur, Amaranth and Melancthon townships, along with hundreds of environmental organizations and individuals, agree. They have signed the coalition’s Demand a Moratorium Now (DAMN) petition.

The coalition argues that aggregate mining “is not a benign activity.” It permanently changes the natural environment in ways that have a negative impact on nature and communities. The coalition also points out that much of the demand for concrete results from an outdated planning approach that prioritizes auto-dependent suburban sprawl and the highways that go with it. And it notes that if the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It also argues that current industry practices put “an unfair burden” on local communities, such as Cataract, to advocate for the natural environment and their communities, and do not meet the requirements for “free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous nations.”

The James Dick Quarry is a stone’s throw away from Caledon Village. Photo by Rosemary Hasner.

A timeout might sound like a good idea to the citizens, organizations and municipalities that become embroiled in long and costly gravel wars. (Votorantim expects the licensing process to take at least five years.) But Greg Sweetnam, vice-president of Bolton-based James Dick Construction, one of Caledon’s larger aggregate operators, says moratoriums, which have been tried before and failed, are not the answer.

The son-in-law of the company’s founder, Sweetnam is charismatic, genuine and convincing. He believes the root of the problem is that municipal governments don’t look far enough into the future. “Even the longest official plans (the documents that guide municipal planning) are only for 25 years,” he says. Yet the roads and buildings constructed using aggregates are – and should be – designed to last as long as several human lifetimes, even centuries. Which is why, Sweetnam says, James Dick sets its corporate sights on 300 years of aggregate supply. He says that when he tells people this, they “look at us like we are crazy.”

His company’s ability to take such a long-term approach is facilitated by provincial policies that the Reform Coalition and its members argue are the nub of the conflicts over aggregate mining that plague the province. Part of Ontario’s Planning Act, the Provincial Policy Statement lays the foundation for regulating the development and use of land. Section 2.5.2.1 reads: “Demonstration of need for mineral aggregate resources, including any type of supply/demand analysis, shall not be required…” 

The exemption from proving need may sound like an aggregate free-for-all to those who have signed the DAMN petition, but it is what allows aggregate companies to acquire and license enough resources to ensure their supply well into the future. In Caledon, for instance, licences permit at least three times more aggregate extraction than is actually mined each year. And aggregate companies own enormous swaths of Caledon’s countryside that they hope to someday exploit for what lies below. 

Not having to prove need paves the way for companies such as Votorantim to apply for a licence to extract aggregate that may already be available from an existing pit or quarry, leaving Cataract and area residents to cope with the consequences of another gaping hole.

What’s more, the exemption is not reciprocal. As the Reform Coalition points out, community groups are burdened with having to advocate – effectively prove need – for nature and their communities on a pit-by-pit basis. In response to these efforts, Sweetnam falls back on the standard industry line, writing, “We just have to be mature about the land-use decisions we make today. NIMBYs are everywhere.”

The result is the kind of drawn-out and expensive confrontations illustrated in Caledon by the 14-year-long clash between the Coalition of Concerned Citizens and James Dick Construction. The citizens’ group opposed James Dick’s bid to quarry Amabel dolostone from Rockfort Farm north of Terra Cotta. In doing so, it spent 350,000 volunteer hours and $1.8 million before the application was finally denied in 2010. Yet, despite all that time and money, all those dedicated citizens likely won no more than a reprieve. Says Sweetnam, “We fully believe we’ll take that rock out of the ground someday.”

Close to market

Much of Sweetnam’s confidence about future mining opportunities is grounded in another clause in the Provincial Policy Statement. It says, “As much of the mineral aggregate resources as is realistically possible shall be made available as close to markets as possible.” 

And when it comes to the GTA, it doesn’t get any closer than Caledon. Sweetnam refers to the town as “ground zero,” because, he says, it has the only readily minable deposits of the coveted dolostone south of Collingwood that are not protected by the Niagara Escarpment Plan.

A 2022 report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and commissioned by the OSSGA, titled “The Long Haul: Examining the Implications of Far-From-Market Aggregates,” justified this close-to-market requirement. Taking things to an extreme, the study’s authors calculated that if 100 per cent of the 25 million tonnes of aggregate used annually in the GTHA came from, on average, 75 kilometres farther away, it would cause greenhouse-gas emissions to rise by 89,000 tonnes and increase the cost of aggregates by $169 million a year.

These sound like big numbers, but they represent only about 2 per cent of what the provincial government is expected to spend on Highway 413 and a minuscule amount of GHGs compared to those associated with yet another freeway.

After water, the world’s largest demand is not for oil and gas, it’s for concrete. Photo by Rosemary Hasner.

Study author Ester Gerassime acknowledged the report quantified only “the environmental implications directly associated with far-from-market aggregate production.” It didn’t consider the other side of the balance sheet, the one that measures the environmental and societal costs and losses resulting from locating so many pits and quarries in the GTA. Nor did it ask the questions on the minds of the DAMN signatories: How much of those losses and costs should their municipalities be expected to bear? At what point will they be deemed to have done their fair share of supplying this resource? When do community and environmental damages outweigh close-to-market benefits?

Municipal share

One hard cost arises from the fact that nearly all aggregates are transported by truck. The damage heavy vehicles cause to local roads is paid for by municipalities. To offset these expenses, OSSGA spokesperson Sharon Armstrong explained in an interview that for every tonne of aggregate sold in the province, aggregate companies charge their customers (among whom the provincial government is one of the largest) an “aggregate levy.” Municipalities have long complained that their portion of this fee doesn’t cover the cost of infrastructure repairs, which means that local taxpayers indirectly subsidize what are often multinational corporations such as Votorantim and Holcim, which owns Lafarge, a major pit operator in Caledon.

As a result, in 2017, an organization representing Ontario’s top aggregate-producing municipalities, including Caledon, came to an agreement with OSSGA to raise the toll to 52.6 cents a tonne from just over 11 cents. Together, according to Armstrong, they took their proposal to Queen’s Park only to have the Liberal government of the day turn it down. Instead, the fee went up by a mere nine cents and future increases were capped to match the Consumer Price Index. Today, the levy is 20.8 cents. In Britain, by comparison, it’s about $1.50.

Adding to that taxpayer subsidy, and likely contributing to the decision by municipalities to sign onto the DAMN campaign, is the result of a 2017 formula change by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. The change shifted the property-tax assessment of the active portion of gravel pits to farmland from industrial, a move that ignores the value of the aggregate. Though this “farmland” is then taxed at the industrial rate, the assessed value of the pit area is much reduced, handing producers a substantial tax break.

As a result of the MPAC decision, which was retroactive to 2009, municipalities lost millions in tax revenues. Claiming that the agricultural assessment is too low, frustrated aggregate-producing municipalities approached the provincial government this past summer with proposals to mitigate the effects of the decision on their tax revenues. So far, the province has not responded.

Reduce the impact

The Forks of the Credit Preservation Group has suggested another move that could help reduce the conflict between aggregate operations and their neighbours: increase the “minimum separation distances” that legislate how far pits and quarries must be from people and sensitive land uses such as residences, hospitals, schools and wetlands. Currently, aggregate companies can apply to blast out a metres-deep quarry within 100 feet of a residence, less than the distance between home plate and second base in a major league ballpark.

In Votorantim’s case, the company recently announced it had voluntarily excluded “the southernmost 88 acres of land from any future licence applications.” This means that rather than being within a baseball toss of Cataract’s streets, the quarry would be separated by about 650 feet, a distance Usain Bolt could run in less than 20 seconds. 

Sweetnam says that James Dick uses minimum separation distances of “at least 500 feet for blasting quarries,” but he otherwise dismisses concerns about the use of explosives. Given our dependence on aggregates, he says, this use is a small price for a few people to pay. And he notes that at his company’s quarry in Guelph, they blast only 22 times a year and the explosion lasts for only seconds. 

The global picture

Whereas locally owned James Dick Construction was behind the Rockfort quarry application, Cataract’s forthcoming battle is against a foreign multinational corporation. Even Sweetnam expresses concern about these global players muscling into the Ontario market – and sending their profits offshore. He notes, “Concentration of the best quality stone in the hands of a few vertically integrated multinationals has affected the ability of independent Canadian concrete producers to effectively compete in the concrete sector.” 

In 2021, Joan Kuyek, author of Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community from the Mining Industry, investigated the players in Ontario’s aggregate industry. In a report titled “Who Benefits from Aggregate Extraction in Ontario?” she documented disturbing findings about Holcim, which had revenues of about $30 billion in 2019 and some 70,000 employees in 70 countries. Through subsidiaries Lafarge and Warren Paving, which hold more than 2,000 acres in Caledon, the publicly traded Swiss company is the town’s largest operator, licensed to remove 2.2 million tonnes of aggregate a year from three of its eight Caledon pits. This tonnage doesn’t take into account the conglomerate’s five other Caledon pits, on which there is no annual extraction limit. Kuyek writes that in the U.S., Holcim has been fined more than $279 million (USD) since 2008 for 638 infractions. The company paid $850,000 (USD) for polluting New York’s Hudson River.

As for Votorantim, Kuyek reported the family-run conglomerate headquartered in São Paulo, Brazil, has interests in energy, ironworks, steel, finance, pulp and paper, cement, agribusiness, aluminum, cellulose and waste management. In 2011, Reuters revealed that Votorantim was one of six companies, including Holcim, that “colluded to fix prices, hampering competition…” In 2014, the BNamericas news service reported that the company had “racked up some 2,000 violations for overweight trucks in the past two years.”

Furthermore, in 2011, Votorantim sued the Canadian government for $275 million (USD) under the North American Free Trade Agreement, though it later withdrew its claim because it “lacked and had always lacked standing to bring a claim under NAFTA.” According to the federal government’s website, “The claimant alleged that SMC’s (Votorantim’s) attempt to obtain a quarry operation licence for lands it owns near Hamilton, Ontario, was frustrated by improper political interference…” That “interference” was the result of efforts by a “local citizens’ group with close ties to the governing provincial party, aided by local politicians.”

Worryingly, it turns out Brazil is a particularly shady player. In 2019, The Guardian newspaper published a provocative article titled “Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth.” Author Jonathan Watts wrote: “According to the watchdog group Transparency International, construction is the world’s dirtiest business, far more prone to graft than mining, real estate, energy or the arms market. No country is immune, but in recent years, Brazil has revealed most clearly the jaw-dropping scale of bribery in the industry.”

Watts continued, “Limestone quarries and cement factories are also often pollution sources, along with the trucks that ferry materials between them and building sites. At this scale, even the acquisition of sand can be catastrophic – destroying so many of the world’s beaches and river courses that this form of mining is now increasingly run by organized crime gangs and associated with murderous violence.”

In Canada, Votorantim owns 40 ready-mix concrete and aggregate sites, including 17 Ontario pits and quarries operated by subsidiary Canada Building Materials. Though Votorantim, through CBM, extracts aggregate from pits in neighbouring Erin, Mono and Halton Hills, the Cataract quarry would be the company’s first foray into Caledon.

Buy local 

Despite the acrimonious battle over the Rockfort quarry application, it at least involved a locally owned company. The James Dick family’s deep generational roots in Caledon mean that neighbourliness still plays a role in the company’s business strategy. The company can’t afford to violate the rules, pay its fines, then cut and run. Among its considerable efforts to be a good corporate citizen, it sponsors many community events, plans to convert to an electric fleet as soon as the trucks roll off the Tesla production line, and uses a progressive technique to eliminate the need to discharge groundwater from below-water-table quarries. 

Sweetnam is especially proud of the company’s partnership with the Canadian Cross Training Club. This local athletic organization has been holding swimming events in one of James Dick’s quarry ponds just south of Caledon Village for more than a decade. Over the years, the site has developed into a major training centre, where members can participate in a variety of disciplines including swimming and paddle boarding. The alliance may result in Caledon’s becoming a world-class training destination.

Jewel or natural backyard

Although Sweetnam is unfaltering in his belief that a ready supply of aggregates must continue to be available to meet the growing demand, he contradicts his industry’s repeated claims that Ontario is short of aggregates. He reckons that rather than running out of even the most sought-after bedrock, there’s enough of this natural resource in Caledon “to supply the entire GTA for thousands of years.”

“There are going to be pits in Caledon forever” Sweetnam says. And although he is far too polished to give in to frustration, it feels as though he wants to add, “So get used to it” or “When is this going to sink in?” 

In 2021, Canada produced an almost unimaginable 193.5 million tonnes of aggregate, with nearly half of it coming from Ontario. The OSSGA estimates that over the next two decades, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area alone will consume 1.5 billion tonnes of this material.

Closer to home, if the current volume of aggregate extracted annually in Caledon were all gravel, it would coat the entire community of Bolton in about four inches of grey gold – year upon year upon year. By the time Caledon’s population hits 300,000, Bolton would be buried under 10 feet of it.

Sweetnam describes his company’s partnership with the Caledon Cross Training Club as “a model of how sites can be used by the public at the same time as mining is going on in another part of the site.” An unapologetic champion of his industry, he takes it a step farther, “I think our pits are the jewel in the crown of Caledon.” 

As they brace to protect another 700 acres of Caledon countryside in a battle with Votorantim, the Forks of the Credit Preservation Group sees it differently. In a draft report, the group writes, “The Forks of the Credit is the natural backyard for the more than 100,000 people who visit here every year… For some people it is simply a day in the country. For newcomers to Canada, it is often their first view of what Canada is supposed to look like. For families who return to visit over many generations, it is a place that keeps memories alive.” 

About the Author More by Nicola Ross

Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton.

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