London

Ministry probing possible Endangered Species Act violation at Byron gravel pit

The pit, which is slated for development, is the site of more than 1,900 bank swallow burrows according to one of the experts trying to protect them. 

Experts say it's the site of more than 1,900 bank swallow burrows

A bank swallow perches on the edge of its burrow cut into the sheer face of a cliff inside the Byron gravel pit in London, Ont. (Leanne Grieves)

The Ministry of Environment says it's probing a possible violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the Byron gravel pit in London, which is home to a colony of at-risk bank swallows.

The pit, which is slated for development, is the site of more than 1,900 burrows, according to one of the experts trying to protect them. 

Brendon Samuels, a PhD student at Western University who studies bird conservation, has started an online petition to have construction at the pit stopped or moved away from where the threatened species has made their home.

As of Monday, the petiton had more than 10,000 signatures.

A statement sent to CBC News by Lindsay Davidson, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, said "the Ministry is currently looking into a potential ESA contravention in the Byron Pit concerning a colony of Bank Swallows."

The ministry has received calls from the public contending that activities at the site are harming, or potentially harming, the species, he added. However, Davidson said, the ministry does not have confirmation of a contravention of the act.

Fines up to $1M

Kaitlyn Mitchell, a staff lawyer with Animal Justice, says that's a pretty serious cause for concern.

"If there's already been a violation of the act, I would be concerned that perhaps there's already been some damage to the nesting site of the species, and that would be a very serious problem because this is a species that's already threatened in Ontario," she said.

A colony of bank swallows can be seen here in the sheer wall of the cliff face of the Byron gravel pit in this June 2020 photo. (Leanne Grieves)

Depending on the situation and who committed the offence, Mitchell said penalties for violating the ESA can go as high as $1 million for a corporation and $250,000 for an individual. The fines can even be higher if it's not the first time. 

The reason the fines are so high, she said, is to discourage individuals and companies from being reckless and to stop them from building it into the cost of doing business. 

I'm not sure that there's another place for these particular birds to go.- Kaitlyn Mitchell

"We have the ESA enforced in Ontario because the people of Ontario, as well as the government, have recognized there's value to maintaining biodiversity … Unfortunately, as we see more and more development spreading, particularly across the south, we're seeing more and more habitats destroyed and more and more species extinct," she said. 

"I'm not sure that there's another place for these particular birds to go." 

A London city official has said that in order for development at the site to begin, the province has to declare the area a no longer active quarry. The company that holds the licence is supposed to remediate the land to make it safe, as part of its agreement with the province. 

"If an endangered species moves in, it's not a clear cut case of continuing to remediate and pretend it didn't happen," said Mitchell. "You need to acknowledge the presence of those species now, and change your plans accordingly." 

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