In the area of Melancthon Township, 62 miles north of Toronto, exists a unique soil called Honeywood silt loam, a Class 1 soil that is prized in the farming community for its high quality.
The reason for that rich soil is another specialized product that lies beneath it—Amabel limestone, a type of limestone used widely by the construction industry currently in high demand.
But an ambitious plan to mine the limestone could jeopardize both the soil and the waters that permeate the limestone underneath it, and has prompted widespread concern in the area.
Opponents say the massive 2,316-acre open pit mega quarry proposed for Melancthon by The Highland Companies would destroy thousands of acres of much-needed productive farmland and divert water from rivers and wells.
Below the land lies an aquifer that forms the headwaters of five major river systems in southern Ontario that are important drinking water sources for more than a million people downstream.
The plan by Highland, a privately owned company backed by a Boston-based multibillion dollar hedge fund, would require blasting 200 feet beneath the water table and the extraction of approximately 160 million gallons of water per day.
The company submitted its application—all 3,100 pages of it—to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources last month. The 45-day public comments period ends April 26, which is not nearly enough time as far as local farmer Carl Cosack is concerned.
Cosack, vice chair of the North Dufferin Agricultural Community Taskforce, which is fighting the project, says he has asked Minister of Natural Resources Linda Jeffrey for more time to research Highland’s application.
“We strongly feel that this application is the biggest in the province ever and that it cannot be treated like the rezoning for rural residents—and it is being treated that way. As a matter of fact, a resident in this neighborhood would need an environmental assessment before you could build on your quarter acre or acre lot, yet a mega-quarry of almost 2,400 acres does not require an environmental assessment. How strange is that?”
Highland, which owns two large farming operations in Dufferin County, bought up 7,000 acres, which were devoted mostly to growing potatoes, from local farmers over the last four years.
“Nobody ever thought that this huge amount of land would be bought by anybody, much less a U.S. company, and we have 45 days to try and understand what they’re trying to do,” says Cosack.
The application is asking to put 3,600 40-ton loaded trucks on the road every day except statutory holidays and the same number of empty ones coming back—150 entries and 150 exits per hour. Blasting would take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day.
Cosack notes that the application only covers best-case scenarios, with no mitigation plans if anything goes wrong.
“Water is unpredictable, and when you dig 200 feet below the water table there isn’t an expert in the world who could predict without chance of error that all will go as planned,” he says, adding that the quarry is “a development headed for environmental disaster.”
Site ‘Carefully Selected’
If it goes ahead the quarry will be about one-third the size of Toronto, making it the second largest such operation in North America.
Highland says Melancthon is an ideal site for the quarry because it is sparsely populated and has direct access to a former provincial highway designated for truck traffic.
The company says Melancthon was “carefully selected” so that the quarry, which will create 465 jobs, could be conducted in an environmentally responsible manner, noting the area lies outside of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO Biosphere reserve that borders the edge of the proposed quarry site.
“Unfortunately one extracts aggregate where it happens to be located,” says Highland spokesman Michael Daniher.
“What we did as part of a research process is try and identify a site that would have the fewest consequences and the fewest constraints in terms of legislation governing such activity.”
Daniher points out that an open house and a public information session have been held to keep the community informed, and company representatives have attended 130 meetings of councils committees and community organizations.
“We’re certainly aware of concerns that people have expressed. We are trying to address those concerns and we believe that the process that is now under way will assist in doing that as we move forward.”
Highland’s plan to reinject the 160 million gallons of water collected daily on the open pit mine floor back into the wells around the quarry worries critics, who say the water by then will be heavily contaminated.
Daniher notes that reports in the application conclude that the project’s design and water management plan ensures that water beyond the quarry’s property line would not be affected, nor will there be any adverse affect on existing or future sources of ground water.
“The company has stated that it wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the water that it relies on like every other farming operation in the community, and that’s why it was studied for years,” he says.
He denies allegations that Highland also intends to mine its own landholdings if the project gets the green light.
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