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, critics say.
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 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 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 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.”
Ford government also stripping protections for endangered species in forests
The number of species at risk in Ontario is increasing, and many more haven’t yet been assessed, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found last year.
Senthinathan emphasized that the proposed changes to the growth plan wouldn’t alter existing protections under the Endangered Species Act.
But the Ford government has already weakened the protections provided by that legislation, and is working to give the forestry industry a permanent exemption from it.
Last year, the government made a litany of changes to the act that rolled back measures conserving endangered species. One measure allows developers to pay fees towards endangered species recovery rather than comply with environmental rules, a strategy opponents call "pay-to-slay."
Days after the revisions were introduced, a United Nations report found the world is experiencing its largest mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs.
Given how much the Endangered Species Act has been weakened, “it’s not very effective at assuaging people’s concerns” about quarries going into threatened habitat, Gray said.
“It’s clear that endangered species, (the government sees) them as a hindrance to the development desires of their friends.”
Last month, Ontario also moved to extend measures that exempt the forestry industry from the Endangered Species Act. The government has said it is working on legislation to make the exemption permanent to streamline requirements, a process that has been delayed by COVID-19.
The province has said forestry companies would instead have to follow guidelines under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. Though that act does contain measures aimed at minimizing impact on endangered species, it isn’t equivalent — it lacks rules that would force industry to reassess its plans if it finds unexpected threatened or endangered species after they start logging, said Reykia Fick, a nature and food campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
“I have no concern with making bureaucracy simpler, but in this case, it’s changing the substance of how the logging industry is actually impacting endangered species,” she said.
The Crown Forest Sustainability Act also doesn’t include measures to support the recovery of endangered species, said Julee Boan, the boreal program manager at Ontario Nature. Without that, she added, endangered and threatened populations will still continue to decline, albeit more slowly.
“For most of these species, it’s a slow-motion extinction,” Boan said. "It’s like paying the interest and never touching the debt."
Consultations on the forestry changes ended last week. If passed, they could harm woodland caribou, which are categorized as threatened in Ontario, Fick said.
There should be enough room for logging and endangered species, Boan said. In a draft update to its overall forestry strategy released late last year, the province found it’s using about half of the wood it could “sustainably harvest.”
But the province also wants to double its wood production by 2030, the same document says, adding that the lumber “could be available for attracting investments” in Canada and abroad.
“The whole approach the Ford government is taking is extraction at all costs,” Fick said.
Though it’s technically possible to recover species after they decline, those efforts become more costly and disruptive as threatened populations dwindle, Boan added.
"If we take the actions required now in terms of implementing recovery strategies, it will save us from those tougher decisions," she said.
Schreiner said the combined effects of the forestry changes and the revisions to the growth plan would have a "devastating effect."
“This government seems to have a war on wildlife,” Schreiner said.
Spokespeople for Clark and Yurek didn’t answer questions about how the government prioritizes industry and endangered species.
Senthinathan said the government’s policies balance “water, soil, air and social and economic values.”
Critics question transparency of growth plan changes
In Ontario, the government must post actions it takes on the province’s Environmental Registry, where residents can weigh in on proposed changes.
Last year, Lysyk rebuked the government for posting bulletins on the registry that did “not adequately describe important aspects” of proposals. In 2018-19, more than half the postings by certain ministries were lacking, Lysyk found.
The summary of the proposed growth plan changes posted to the Environmental Registry does not mention the changes for endangered species.
“Given how much this will negatively impact endangered species habitat, those changes should have been put into the summary as a transparency measure,” Schreiner said.
Senthinathan and spokespeople for Clark and Yurek did not answer questions about why that change wasn’t included.
Tabuns said the government should not be proposing such significant changes during COVID-19, when the public’s attention is on the ongoing pandemic.
“It's really an extension of the Ford war on the environment,” Tabuns said.
“They know what they’re doing is damaging, and they know people will oppose it.”