Ford government's plan for building new highway puts Holland Marsh at risk, critics say

Premier Doug Ford's government is moving ahead with a four-lane highway between Highway 400 and 404, but environmental groups are worried about the impact it will have on the Holland Marsh.

Province's use of 1997 environmental assessment won't spur 'smart growth,' opponents warn

A view of the Holland Marsh. Environmentalists worry a proposed highway slated to cut through the area will damage wetlands and farms. (Jeff Laidlaw)

Still in its planning stage, the proposed four-lane highway has no official name.

Bradford Bypass is frequently used by the Ontario government and other supporters, a reference to one of the communities that will be served by the 16.2 kilometre stretch.

Holland Marsh Highway is the name favoured by a coalition of citizen and environmental groups, a reference to the environmentally sensitive lands that part of the highway will cross. 

The Bradford Bypass will ease congestion and make commuting easier in several fast-growing communities, while the Holland Marsh Highway will pave over precious wetlands and send chemical runoff into nearby Lake Simcoe.

It depends who you ask.

"We call it the Holland Marsh Highway because it goes straight through the Holland Marsh and because it will destroy wetlands and significant wildlife habitat in the Holland Marsh," Jack Gibbons, chair of Lake Simcoe Watch, said in an interview.

Lake Simcoe Watch is one of more than 20 environmental and ratepayer organizations, including Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, that are asking the federal government to intervene. In a letter sent this week to Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, the coalition is asking that the highway project be designated for a federal environmental assessment.

The letter calls the provincial regulatory process for the project "grossly inadequate," "superficial in nature," and says as a result, groundwater and wildlife habitats are at risk.

Environmental assessment from 1997

Plans for an east-west thoroughfare between Highway 400 and Highway 404 long predate the current government. The need for a provincial highway in the area was identified as far back as 1979 and an environmental assessment was completed in 1997.

"For decades, commuters in York Region and Simcoe County have been demanding a connecting link," Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, said in a statement.

"The Bradford Bypass will bring relief to drivers, support development in York Region and Simcoe County, and bolster Ontario's economy following this pandemic," the statement said.

A spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney says: 'The Bradford Bypass will bring relief to drivers, support development in York Region and Simcoe County, and bolster Ontario's economy following this pandemic.' (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But instead of updating the 24 year-old environmental assessment on the project, the Progressive Conservative government is seeking to exempt it from the Environmental Assessment Act.

The highway is just one of several infrastructure projects that previously underwent environmental assessments that the province is seeking exemptions for. The Ford government says it's a way to speed up development and avoid duplication. 

"A new streamlined process for assessing and consulting on potential environmental impacts will result in shorter timelines and allow for construction to start earlier. By working smarter, we will build important infrastructure for communities faster … environmental protections will not be compromised," Mulroney's statement said.

'Smart growth'

But the groups in opposition say the 1997 assessment is too dated and flawed to proceed with now. 

"It did not consider cumulative effects, climate change, or detail the impacts on natural heritage, migratory birds, fisheries, First Nations or discuss air pollution," said their letter, written by Laura Bowman, a lawyer with the firm Ecojustice.

Gibbons believes there is a way to responsibly build the highway. But in order for that to happen, an updated assessment process must be completed to establish all the environmental impacts and determine how to properly mitigate them.

"We've got to stop sacrificing the health of Lake Simcoe to grow our population and to grow our economy. So we're asking for smart development and for smart growth," Gibbons said.

Local support

East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson says the long-discussed highway is badly needed to reduce regional traffic on local roads.

"Our community has grown substantially," Hackson said in an interview. She says local roads are often overwhelmed with commercial and private vehicles looking for "shortcuts" between Highways 400 and 404.

A map of the proposed highway. The province says it will make commuting easier in several fast-growing communities. (Ecojustice)

Hackson trusts the provincial government to carry out a proper environmental assessment.

"I'm confident that the province will be doing assessments and studies to make sure that what is going in is less invasive and environmentally friendly," Hackson said. 

The highway also has the support of York Regional Council and The Regional Municipality of York.

In a statement, York Region Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson said the project "will ensure our communities continue to be places where people want to live and businesses want to invest. We welcome the process required to ensure the safety of travellers while also providing additional and enhanced opportunities for the movement of goods and people."

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada has received the request for the federal government to designate the project. A spokesperson for the agency says it is reviewing the request and once completed, it will prepare a recommendation for the minister. No timeline was provided.