With 175-acre gravel pit pending, Niagara Falls council passes up enhanced oversight of aggregate industry
Niagara Falls residents are entrenched in a battle over a looming quarry expansion and on Wednesday evening were looking to elected officials for help. They didn’t receive any.
Walker Aggregates — a prominent aggregate company in southwestern Ontario with operations stretching from Tobermory in the Bruce Peninsula, to Windsor, to the Niagara Region—has submitted applications to both the City and the Region for the construction of a 175-acre open pit just outside the urban boundary of Niagara Falls on the west end of the city. But in light of a damning report from Ontaio’s Auditor General on the lack of accountability and regulations within the province’s aggregate industry, residents were asking City officials to join the many other municipalities who have requested the provincial government put a halt to new aggregate operations in order to improve oversight.
Since the early 2000s, Walker Aggregates has been purchasing land adjacent to the Fernwood neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, amassing a total of approximately 260 acres. In 2019, the company launched a media blitz about its plans to construct a new open pit that would replace the company's current gravel pit in Thorold. Just eight kilometres away, the Thorold operation is expected to be depleted of aggregate within the next five to seven years. In 2021, the company submitted its application to the City of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Region for an Official Plan Amendment (both regional and city) and a Zoning Bylaw Amendment. In addition, the company must submit an application to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) for an Aggregate License to extract below the water table.
Under the Planning Act, both the Region and the City are required to hold public meetings for residents to share their concerns and opinions on the proposal prior to council’s decision. The Region held its public meeting on October 11, 2023, for which 15 delegates were registered to speak, and written communication submitted by an additional 15.
“No one chooses to live near a quarry, asphalt plant, or dump. No one knowingly purchases a home in an area that will experience noise, dust, and other pollutants. No one embraces quarries as ‘good neighbours’,” Frances Chandler, a resident of the Fernwood neighbourhood wrote to the Region. She said her comments were far past NIMBYism and instead were “pro human, pro wildlife and pro environment”.
Many of the concerns raised by residents were in relation to the proximity of the quarry to the Fernwood neighbourhood, a middle-income community in the city’s west end that is home to many retirees and young families. Based on the current proposal, the pit would be located just 80 metres from the nearest household and 280 metres from the neighbourhood, raising concerns about air and water quality, as well as truck traffic through city streets. Locals have also expressed concern with potential harm to the tourist industry as the pit could serve as a barrier for those traveling down Lundy’s Lane.
“We are concerned that Niagara Falls is on the verge of losing its standing in the world. Imagine what the visitors or residents of the 72 floor skyscraper will have to look at—quarries, dust, noise, dynamiting, etc,” Helene Cayer, a resident of Fernwood, wrote in a submission to the Region.
The proposed quarry is northwest of the Fernwood neighbourhood.
(Google Maps/Rachel Morgan)
According to the MNRF, there is no minimum setback distance for pits and quarries, meaning municipalities and applicants can compromise on how far a new pit or quarry must be from any “sensitive receptors”, which includes homes, schools, hotels, etc. Some municipalities, like Caledon, have taken it upon themselves to demand more strict parameters for dealing with these setback distances. Rooted in a battle with Canada Building Materials (CBM) on its proposal to construct an 800-acre blasting quarry in the hamlet of Cataract, Caledon Mayor Annette Groves brought forward a motion to increase minimum separation distances to 1,000 metres. Since council passed the motion, the mayor has been in discussion with staff and the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry advocating for this increased precautionary measure.
Other concerns related to the ecological value of the land. The parcel is currently designated "good general agriculture" and "environmental protection area" in Niagara Region's official plan, but in order for a pit to operate, it would need to be changed to “extractive industrial”.
Long known as an agricultural powerhouse in Ontario, the Niagara Region provides local produce, grains and animal products to the Region and across the province. Ontario is already losing 319 acres of farmland everyday, and with the rising cost of food — another 2.5 to 4.5 percent predicted for 2024 after experiencing a seven percent increase in 2023 — and growing food insecurity (according to the 2022 Canadian Income Survey, one in five households in the Niagara Region are experiencing food insecurity) protecting vital farmland is common sense decision, residents said.
“Zoning was implemented in the first place for this very reason. There are zoned areas in and around Niagara for this kind of business and areas of scrub land not suited for agriculture,” Chuck Gould, another resident, wrote.
Other environmental concerns have to do with the watershed and watercourse that runs directly through the proposed area. There is a creek that runs through the Fernwood neighbourhood converging with other waterways outside city limits. This creek also runs directly through Walker Aggregates’ properties.
Sean Norman, senior planner at Niagara Region, told council and the community that Walker Aggregates plans to move the watercourse, stating that is a decision that would involve the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and final approval by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Altering a watercourse triggers alarm bells for those concerned about the natural environment as it can cause complications for species that live in and around the creek as well as changes in sedimentation and flow which can impact water volume and velocity.
The NPCA did not provide comment to The Pointer on the applicant's plan to diverge the watercourse before publication.
In the wake of a blistering audit released in December by Ontario’s acting Auditor General Nick Stavropolous, residents of Niagara Falls have taken their fight to the next level. On top of pressuring the City to reject the application from Walker Aggregates, they are now asking the City to join 20 other municipalities and over 40 community groups in demanding a moratorium on new pits and quarries across the province until the recommendations under the audit have been fulfilled. The moratorium request was launched by the Reform Gravel Mining Coalition (RGMC)
“The Auditor General’s report confirms that the current system for managing aggregate resources in Ontario is broken; it is putting lives and the environment at risk without any proven need to do so. It is time to pull the emergency brake, impose an immediate moratorium on all new aggregate approvals and implement the Auditor General’s recommendations in order to protect our shared home, now and for generations to come,” The RGMC wrote in a statement following the release of the AG report.
RGMC, a grassroots movement urging the Ontario government to take necessary action to protect lives, communities and the environment from the devastating impacts of the gravel mining industry in partnership with other environmental organizations, launched the Demand A Moratorium Now! (DAMN!) campaign in January 2022 to pause the approval of licenses for new pits and quarries until a third party study is completed to determine the best path forward for aggregate in the province.
“The aggregate industry has two features, one is greed, the other is waste,” Mississauga Councillor Carolyn Parrish said when the Region of Peel signed onto the moratorium in March 2022.
Parrish’s comments were reinforced by the AG report, which determined the MNRF is allowing aggregate operators to run circles around it, dodging compliance and consequences for failing to follow regulations.
“Our audit found that the Ministry is falling short in balancing its competing roles of facilitating the extraction of aggregate resources and minimizing the impacts of aggregate operations, particularly through its role in regulating the industry to ensure approval holders comply with all necessary requirements,” Stavropoulos commented following the release of the report on December 6.
Aggregate operations dramatically alter landscapes, impacting waterways and the local ecosystem.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Ontario currently has over 5,000 licensed pits and quarries in operation, yet the MNRF has a significant shortage in aggregate inspectors contributing to low inspection rates, and is experiencing skyrocketing rates of non-compliance. In addition, there is no process in place to ensure sites are rehabilitated when extraction is complete and lackluster mapping and information systems has led to incomplete and inaccurate information on the demand for aggregates in Ontario.
Fernwood resident David Rupay delegated to Niagara Falls council Tuesday requesting council pass a motion requesting the MNRF to impose a moratorium on new pits and quarries until the independent review is completed and join the DAMN! movement.
Rupay stressed that this is not a halt, it is not permanent. Rather the moratorium will give the Ontario government time to address the issues allowing aggregate operators to act as they please, leaving communities to suffer.
“I don’t think anyone here would agree the aggregate industry is in good condition,” he said.
Rupay, who is a civil engineer by trade with over 40 years of experience, said he is not against aggregate operations, in fact he knows the province needs aggregate for development, but the lack of regulation for the industry has gone on too long allowing problems to accumulate.
“I know full well the significance and the importance of aggregate in the economy in Ontario,” he said to council. “I’m trying to make this a win, win for everyone. Let’s help fix what’s broken.”
“We need aggregate, but we need to get our act together.”
Councillor Lori Lococo questioned what the need and demand is for aggregate currently. Walker Aggregate has claimed the new pit is needed to service the growing cities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-lake and Thorold. But as has been identified in the AG report, there is no requirement for an aggregate operator to show need for the material when proposing a new quarry. In fact, the director of planning, building and development at the City, Kira Dolch, said the Provincial Policy Statement prohibits municipalities from studying the need for additional aggregate when faced with an application for an aggregate operation.
Cody Cabral, a spokesperson for Walker Aggregates, referred The Pointer to a report from The Ontario Aggregates Resources Corporation (TORAC) which concluded that, on average, Ontarians use about 14 tonnes of aggregate per person per year.
“Niagara's population is 484,000 residents, therefore Niagara requires 6.7 million tonnes of aggregates per year. Currently, 5 million tonnes of aggregate is produced in Niagara, which is directly used by the City of Niagara Falls, the Region, and local construction companies to support infrastructure, housing and community projects,” he said. “The Upper’s Quarry proposal will sustain the current aggregate production for the future as the City of Niagara Falls and Niagara's population continues to grow.”
But other studies show that the “no need to show need” policy has led to an oversupply — the MNRF has provided licensing for the extraction of 13 times the amount of aggregate that is used on an annual basis, according to some estimates.
“The justification of the moratorium was confirmed in the facts of the Auditor General report,” Rupay said.
Fernwood resident, David Rupay, delegated to council supporting a request for a moratorium on new pits and quarries.
Lococo immediately latched on to the idea tabling a motion to request the moratorium, but without a seconder, it could not even be voted on.
The rest of council followed advice from the City’s CAO and legal council who cautioned against making a politicized decision when there is a live application currently sitting with City staff.
While CAO Jason Burgess said that the City’s role in aggregate applications is quite limited, he said passing a motion requesting a moratorium could appear to the applicant that staff have been influenced, something that could ignite an appeal at the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT).
“That motion, I think, would certainly provide some ammo for the applicant’s lawyers to assert that council was predetermined on this one,” he said.
Mike McSweeney, Executive Director of the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, wrote to council in response to Rupay’s delegation asking that the matter be referred back to staff for review and study instead of a decision being made imminently in the chambers.
“Our industry has been misrepresented by this coalition for some time now, but having said that, it is up to Councils like yours to at the very least hear from all sides on an issue as significant as this one, rather than hear from one proponent in isolation,”
Helene Cayer, another resident of Fernwood and co-signatory to Rupay’s request, told The Pointer in an email statement following the publication of McSweeney’s letter that referring to the residents of Niagara Falls as a “proponent in isolation” is “insulting” and that if he is referring to the RGMC as this proponent, then he has neglected to see that it is supported by 20 municipalities and 41 community groups.
She also cleared the air on hers and Rupay’s association with the RGMC.
“Neither David nor I are members of the RGMC,” she wrote. “RGMC is a public forum, and occasionally someone from our City may attend the meetings. We are not doing this on behalf of RGMC.”
Councillor Wayne Thompson said council should not make a decision without hearing from Walker Aggregates and tabled a motion to refer the delegate’s request back to staff.
“In terms of being a responsible council, we have only heard one side,” Councillor Ruth-Ann Nieuwesteeg, who seconded the motion, said. She expressed concern with requesting the moratorium before knowing whether the pits and quarries in the area are falling into the issues of non-compliance identified in the report.
“I’m not sure if that’s fair to them,” she said.
Cayer and Rupay provided a joint statement following the meeting, stating they were disappointed by the lack of support from council on an issue that has been publicized greatly by the Auditor General.
“The logic stated by the City CAO was convoluted. The matter was referred to the City Solicitor but no timeframe for resolution was stated,” they wrote. “In our opinion, if higher powers such as the Auditor General and MNRF agree that revisions and updates of Policies and Procedures of the Aggregate Resources Act are required and that the MNRF presently lacks the structure and vigilance necessary to ensure conformance and protect all parties, then a pause is required on all applications as part of the process to enable a secure and reliable process to be established for all concerned.”
While the motion passed unanimously, Councillor Lococo did not relent. She requested that staff include in the report how a moratorium would affect operations in Niagara Falls regardless of whether the City demands the moratorium or not.
“At the end of the day,” Burgess said, “it’s the province’s call.”
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