Saul Chernos
NOW Toronto
 
As the plot of potato land slated for a 2,316-acre limestone pit in Melancthon, north of Shelburne, settles into a deep freeze and a historic enviro assessment cranks up, anti-quarry campaigners are catching  their breath.
 
The movement against the Highland Companies project, with its rallies and miles-long marches organized by a coalition of farmers, urban foodies and enviros, was one of the great activist surprises of 2011.
 
But many who participated in those protests may not have realized that a quieter process was already unfolding: the creation of an enviro certification agreement with aggregate firms that would make their earth-gouging projects palatable to the most hardcore of greens.
It’s a tall order, made taller by the fact that the biggest, baddest player of them all – Highland, with its megaquarry dreams – isn’t participating in the discussions. But it’s also complicated by an ongoing tactical split among ecos working on the labelling effort over how to get buy-in from the more than 3,700 licensed quarries in the province.
 
The idea of developing standards for a sustainable seal of approval isn’t exactly new. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies wood and paper products, the Canada Green Building Council green buildings. So if green groups can set terms with loggers and developers, why not with pit and quarry operators?
 
The effort began in 2009, when six eco groups (among them Save the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Nature Conservancy of Canada) and six agg companies, both sides exhausted by fighting each other, met to form the Aggregate Forum of Ontario.
 
“We’d been trying to develop a model that would be accessible to the entire breadth of the industry,” says Ron Reid, a Couchiching Conservancy rep on the AFO.
 
Until recently, despite protests by enviros, landowners and municipalities, Ontario’s quarries, many on the escarpment, the moraine and other sensitive areas, have had a fairly easy ride.
 
Not only are they legally exempt from enviro assessments, under the Aggregate Resources Act, because they’re located on private land, but they also benefit from a provincial decree in the mid-1980s that sand and gravel should be sourced close to market – in other words not far from major centres and sprawl country.
 
This has entrenched the rights of extraction over other land uses, meaning that pits are allowed even in the Greenbelt. And fighting these projects has been a costly uphill and sometimes losing battle before the Ontario Municipal Board.
 
All this is what made the Liberals’ passage in September (in the midst of election fear) of a special regulation subjecting the Melancthon quarry to a full individual EA a watershed event in quarry politics.
 
Lack of community consultation on sand and gravel operations put a premium on the AFO’s efforts. But just as the org was moving along, things got rocky. In 2011, after nearly two years of discussions, Environmental Defence and Holcim Canada (owner of Dufferin Aggregates) formally launched a competing process, Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregate (SERA).
 
The two groups aren’t hurling stones at each other. But clear differences in approach, and some angst, are evident. 
 
AFO, while working with a wide range of participants, kept a low public profile and quietly hired a consultant to frame the issues. The Forum has sought broad consensus among stakeholders and has slowly been developing standards on community engagement, site rehabilitation, protection of biodiversity and such.
 
But in June, SERA jumped the gun, releasing a 35-page draft standards document that includes local consultation, First Nations rights, enviro stewardship and benefit to the community and workers.
 
The AFO’s Reid says SERA caught him by surprise. “One company making an agreement with one environmental organization raised confusion about who was doing what.”
 
SERA exec director Lorne Johnson responds that his group’s participants were finding the AFO process too exploratory and wanted to move faster on actual certification.
 
Not everyone’s worried by the duelling mandates. At Gravel Watch, which has ties to both groups, president Ric Holt says he hopes the two efforts “will lead to running pits better.” Each, he explains, is contributing: AFO, slow and cautious, has spent time developing relationships, while SERA has moved quickly to produce a tangible agreement.
 
Even as the two standards efforts play out, the parties sometimes wind up at the same table. This was the case at a Canadian Urban Institute panel held in Brampton in October to discuss the use in new projects of recycled aggregate from demolished roads and buildings.
 
It seems a no-brainer that reusing rubble could reduce the extraction of virgin rock, and that’s pretty much what the talk was about. Holt urged the gathering to cut back on our “gravel habit” and recycle more than the estimated 13 million tonnes we already reuse annually in Ontario, compared to the 167 million tonnes of virgin rock extracted here.
 
“Take the concrete we’ve got, crunch it up, make it into something else and keep it going,” Holt urged, calling on governments to increase haulage and landfill fees and set targets for use of recycled materials.
 
While recycled aggregate is being used for road bases, it’s not yet employed in Ontario for paved surfaces, buildings and bridges. Several technical speakers said this will change as performance issues are resolved. 
 
There was, however, an elephant-sized boulder in the room: the Highland Companies, which had sent two reps. On the phone, their spokesperson at Hill & Knowlton, Lindsay Broadhead, tells me: “Highland fully embraces best practices, and we’ll work with whomever, but right now the only standards are the Aggregate Resources Act and the environmental assessment,” she says.
 
Highland, she adds, avoided protected areas such as the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Greenbelt. “If we need aggregate,” Broadhead asks, “does it come from a number of smaller quarries or from a single source? In our case, it’s a deep source, so you can impact less top land.”
 
Ultimately, says Gravel Watch’s Holt, it’s not going to be easy to decide where to source gravel. Should we really mine thousands of acres in Melancthon? It’s not a trivial question.”