Burlington anti-quarry campaign joins Ontario-wide push to halt gravel mining

As the spring Ontario election draws near, activists are pressuring politicians to re-examine the rules for an industry they say advances climate change, displaces wildlife and uses precious groundwater resources.

But an industry member says aggregate is needed 'for everything we build in the modern world'

The Nelson Aggregates quarry in Burlington, Ont., is seen from above in this drone shot. An advocacy group is fighting against the expansion of the quarry at Mount Nemo. (Supplied by Reform Gravel Mining Coalition)

The campaign to stop a Burlington quarry has joined a wider movement hoping to put a temporary pause on new aggregate extraction sites across Ontario.

As the spring provincial election draws near, politicians are being pressured to re-examine the rules for an industry they say advances climate change, displaces wildlife and uses precious groundwater resources.

The Reform Gravel Mining Coalition is a provincewide alliance of individuals from areas containing quarries and several advocacy groups, including Conserving our Rural Ecosystems (CORE), the Burlington group fighting against the expansion of the Nelson Aggregates quarry at Mount Nemo. 

Carlisle resident Graham Flint, who spent a decade successfully fighting a proposed St. Mary's cement quarry in Flamborough, which sits between Hamilton and Burlington, is the coalition's co-chair. He said his group realizes banning quarries is unrealistic, but believes it's too easy for companies to start new sites. 

"We want to put a stop to unnecessary aggregate extraction and we think this is an industry that's gotten out of control," said Flint. 

He pointed to Ontario's provincial policy statement, which guides planning decisions. It says "as much of the mineral aggregate resources as is realistically possible shall be made available as close to markets as possible. Demonstration of need for mineral aggregate resources, including any type of supply/demand analysis, shall not be required."

"That's crazy in this day and age," said Flint, adding that considering the climate emergency, we should be more focused on development and protecting the natural landscape.

His group would like to see the issue studied by a committee that would include independent experts, industry representatives and Indigenous communities, who could then make recommendations on how much gravel is truly needed.

As we build denser and smarter communities, we're going to use less gravel, not more.- Graham Flint, Carlisle resident

"The majority of gravel produced in Ontario produces highways and urban sprawl," said Flint, noting Ontario has numerous dormant pits with aggregate remaining in them that could be extracted, instead of starting new sites. "As we build denser and smarter communities, we're going to use less gravel, not more."

The coalition spent Friday making about 100 calls to provincial politicians, including Burlington MPP Jane McKenna, Oakville North-Burlington MPP Effie Triantafilopoulos, Premier Doug Ford and several members of his cabinet. 

Meanwhile, those following the issue in Burlington are awaiting a report on the Nelson proposal from the Joint Agency Review Team (JART), a group of planners and support staff from Halton Region, the City of Burlington, the Niagara Escarpment Commission and Conservation Halton.

That group's assessment will be used to help its member bodies make their decisions on whether to approve the application. CORE members believe it could come out sometime this spring. CBC reached out to the JART, through Halton Region, but did not hear back before this article's publication.

Sector rep says aggregate an 'essential ingredient'

The Ontario aggregate industry is not aligned with calls for a moratorium.

Sharon Armstrong, vice-president of communications for the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, said the push to ban quarries is "absolutely" coming from a place of NIMBYism — the result of people enjoying the benefits but not wanting extraction in their neighbourhoods.

"We need aggregate as [an] essential ingredient for everything we build in the modern world," said Armstrong, citing lipstick, reading glasses and road infrastructure as items that require aggregate. "For us, calling for a moratorium is saying no to future generations."

Armstrong said there's enough licensed aggregate for approximately the next 10 years — a claim disputed by those pushing for reform — and said that since it takes several years to license a new quarry, halting the process now will create bottlenecks down the road.

A Burlington group fighting an expansion of the Nelson Aggregates quarry on Mount Nemo, seen here, has joined a provincewide movement demanding a pause on aggregate extraction. (Reform Gravel Mining Coalition/Supplied)

She said many former quarries have gone on to productive community uses when extraction is complete, citing the Royal Botanical Gardens' Rock Garden and Toronto park Christie Pits as examples. 

Armstrong also notes that while Ontario quarries were permitted to take 3.3 billion litres of water per day in 2016, the most recent year for which she had data — they took significantly less than that, about 375 million litres per day. She said the water used for the aggregate washing process is reused again and again before being released back into the water table.

'We can't change overnight': professor

Dieter Stolle, a McMaster University professor emeritus in civil engineering, said the water that quarries release back into the water table is often at a significantly increased temperature than when it came out, which has negative effects on wildlife. 

"They wash the aggregate to get a better product," explained Stolle, who lives in Dundas. "One of the things that does is concentrate undesirable [minerals] and increase the temperature of the water. Some would say, 'What's the big deal?' Well, it is a big deal … If the water is going down much warmer than it came out, it has an impact on the organisms that are down there."

Overall, though, he said "the aggregate industry has done an excellent job in trying to improve the environment … They're doing an excellent job to provide a product that is good and at the same time minimize the damage being done… Since the mid-'70s, they have cleaned up their act a lot."

He added that "the industry is correct in the sense that the good quality aggregate is becoming more and more difficult to get," noting that with a moratorium, "you'd have to be prepared to have products that aren't as good."

That said, Stolle believes it's worthwhile considering ways we can reduce our dependence on aggregate — including slowing down urban sprawl and looking at alternative materials. He said the Reform Gravel Mining Coalition's agenda may sound radical to the industry, but discussions such as these are important in pushing governments to think about the big picture, over the long term.

"We know we have to change, but we can't do it overnight," Stolle said, noting that balancing the legitimate need for aggregate with local concerns is not an easy job for those in government. 

"We just think differently these days," he said. "We don't want an eyesore, but we want everything else too."


  • This story has been updated to correct water-use figures for Ontario quarries and to clarify that water used for washing gravel is released back into the water table.
    Mar 09, 2022 10:51 AM ET


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