Ford government plans would strip endangered species protections in the Golden Horseshoe, critics say - 2020-06-25
Ontario's Progressive Conservative government is proposing to strip endangered species protections in the province's Golden Horseshoe, making it easier to build quarries in protected habitats. The change is nestled among a list of proposed revisions to the province's plan for how the fast-growing region along the western shores of Lake Ontario will change through 2051. It also fulfils an ask from the stone, sand and gravel industry, which has pushed to expand operations to endangered species habitat. "Why would you do this, other than to make someone very wealthy?" said Ontario NDP climate critic Peter Tabuns in an interview with National Observer.
"It's going to be far more difficult to protect endangered species in southern Ontario." The proposed changes to "A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe," published June 16, would apply to a vast section of southern Ontario stretching from the Greater Toronto Area through Hamilton and Niagara. They're aimed at opening up more land for companies to mine for aggregate: crushed stone, gravel and sand that's a vital part of the concrete that drives construction in the population-heavy region. The proposal is open for public feedback until July 31. If passed, the revisions would remove an existing prohibition on new quarries in the habitats of endangered or threatened species. Another tweak would remove some protections for waterways, deleting them from the growth plan's definition of what qualifies as an ecological function. A quarry is a significant disruption on any landscape, with everything on the surface dug up and replaced with a large, deep pit. Removing the rock is a loud and dusty process, and quarries also bring a steady stream of trucks that carry the product away on newly built access roads. Many can be remediated after extraction is done — a former quarry in Elora, Ont. is now a popular swimming hole, for example. But building them in areas where endangered and threatened species live would "destroy the habitat" for present species, said Tim Gray, executive director of green non-profit Environmental Defence.
One such creature whose habitat could be threatened is the endangered Jefferson Salamander, Gray added. Though its range extends across parts of the Northeastern United States, the greyish-brown, blue-flecked amphibian's only Canadian habitat is the Niagara Escarpment. The craggy limestone formation, which cuts through Southern Ontario, also happens to be a hot spot for aggregate extraction. The Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, a non-profit representing the aggregate industry, has argued in favour of such changes for years. Excluding endangered species habitat would make it nearly impossible to expand operations in the Golden Horseshoe, close to where the material is needed, the association said in 2018. "The proposed amendments to the growth plan will ensure that mineral aggregate operations are treated the same as all other forms of development," the association's executive director, Norm Cheesman, said in an email. The Ontario government wants to make it easier to build quarries in endangered species habitat. Combined with plans to exempt logging companies from endangered species rules, the effect could be devastating, critics say. #onpoli The offices of Environment Minister Jeff Yurek and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark both redirected questions to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. In an emailed statement, ministry spokesperson Praveen Senthinathan said new quarries would still have to pass muster under the Endangered Species Act — a piece of legislation the Progressive Conservative government gutted last year. The change also wouldn't affect the Greenbelt, a swath of protected green space wrapping around the Golden Horseshoe that Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly pledged not to develop. "The aggregates industry is critical to building the schools, homes, hospitals and bridges we rely on," Senthinathan said. "It is the foundation of industries that strengthen our economy and create high-quality, well-paying jobs. Our proposed changes will make it faster to bring aggregates closer to where they are needed, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions required to transport them." Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the change would put forests that absorb carbon and help fight the climate crisis at risk, along with the vanishing species that live there. It could also harm wetlands, which absorb excess water and lessen the effects of flooding that is expected to become more frequent as the climate crisis accelerates. "It's clear that the premier considers environmental regulations that protect public health and communities to be red tape," he said. "I'm sorry, but it's not red tape to protect communities from flooding."