The aggregate balance sheet: Rural residents get to pay more
The anger was palpable. It came from residents of Oro-Medonte, Adjala-Tosoronto and Tiny. They were among 40 people from around the county who attended a workshop at the Oro Station community hall last week. The event was organized by Environmental Defence to get feedback on the “responsible aggregate standard” of the Cornerstone Standards Council, an initiative that brings together several prestigious names in the environmental movement, including ED and Ontario Nature, as well as the major players in the aggregate industry – Lafarge, Dufferin, Miller…
Some stories were startling. Others followed a pattern of frustration that’s familiar to anyone who has been involved in environmental conflict – corporate and government interests united in their disregard for, and outright denial of, facts residents know to be true.
There were complaints about dust, noise, traffic and loss of drinking water quality. Jake Pigeon of Tiny, a neighbor of Dufferin’s Teedon Pit, has seen repeated siltation of his well since 2008. He and his wife Bonnie keep a careful log of these occurrences, and have correlated them with activity at the pit – they think it coincides with gravel being washed (they and other neighbours can hear when there’s machinery in operation, which sometimes happens on days when the company’s records show that no work is taking place). The pit operator’s consultant has dismissed Pigeon’s complaints, alleging that his well construction is defective, a view endorsed by officials with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. The well construction of several other complainants near the pit is also considered to be the problem.
At the workshop, there were complaints about monitoring and enforcement, and how conditions for closing and rehabilitation are forgotten years down the road after extraction has ended. Ellen Cottrell told how she recently reported a berm failure at an old pit on Concession 3 of of Adjala-Tosorontio to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. She said surface water is escaping into the Tosorontio Creek and the Boyne River (both of which support brook trout populations. The problem is that the surface water will warm the cold-water fishery). Her complaint was dismissed by the ministry because the pit’s licence was surrendered in 1991. “Prior to the surrender of the licence MNR would have been satisfied with the rehabilitation completed. Once a licence is surrendered MNRF is no longer involved with the property from an ARA perspective,” says the email to Cottrell from aggregate inspector Brent Armstrong.
Last Tuesday, it fell to Environmental Defence representatives Claire Malcolmson and Keith Brooks to present the Cornerstone certification standard, a process enforced by “independent third-party auditors” that they see as a first step in making the industry respond to public concerns. They took note of many criticisms and promised to take them back to a revisions panel that will decide whether changes need to be made to the standard.
One person questioned whether Environmental Defence has entered into “a deal with the devil,” and suggested that Simcoe County be made an “aggregate-free” zone. “That’s not possible!” Malcolmson exclaimed. On the central point – whether this voluntary standard will be an improvement on the current regime that’s weighted in favour of aggregate companies and characterized by minimal enforcement by the province – Malcolmson insisted that the CSC is better than nothing.
I’ll reserve judgment on that – I have been given a raft of material to read through and I will report back. But there’s no doubt that workshop attendees were disgusted by the power dynamic they face: aggregate is most used in cities where the votes are, but rural residents with less political clout pay the price in depressed property values and lost quality of life.
What benefits do they get in return? That was a question in a survey distributed at the workshop. A fireworks display was mentioned! I hear Nelson-Lafarge is offering Adjala-Tosorontio residents a walking path along the top of the gravel pit. Reminds me of when then-natural resources minister Linda Jeffries told Melancthon council that if they played their cards right they might be able to get a golf course out of the mega-quarry deal… That was a very different council to the one in Adjala-Tos, it was a council that came out fighting in defence of their residents, their farmland and their natural heritage. The Liberal government and the hedge-fund behind the mega-quarry found out that the golf course idea wouldn’t fly and, after an epic battle, caved.
The only benefits I see that could remotely justify the cost and destruction that seem to be a constant theme are:
–Significant taxes paid to the host municipalities and
–Well-paid secure jobs.
These slides from Wellington County – Wellington Aggregate Property Tax Impacts 2017 – tell the unhappy recent story of mass appeals of aggregate site property taxes launched across the province in the last few years by the Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, which reached a settlement with the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation in 2016.
Who had the deeper pockets – the OSSGA, using its provincially sanctioned preferential access to our natural heritage (through the Aggregate Resources Act), or MPAC, using our taxpayer dollars? My suspicion is that MPAC, faced with mounting legal costs, gave in to an opponent with seemingly unlimited resources, as so often happens in battles between public good and private greed.
The result, at least in Wellington County, was a massive devaluation of the assessment on aggregate sites and unprecedented taxation losses, with a heavy burden falling on the residential property owner. If you look at the last slide, we in Ontario are now in a situation where a 100-acre aggregate site can end up paying less taxes than a one-acre three-bedroom single family home! $11,601 versus $11,799.
As for jobs, industry watchdog Gravel Watch Ontario advises that while no comprehensive study has been undertaken, ad-hoc information collected over the years indicates that a good-size operation, say a 100-acre site, will employ around 12 to 20 seasonal employees, who almost always get laid off during the winter.
It all makes the vision of an aggregate-free Simcoe County most attractive. Because what do we get at the moment? Grief and taxes.