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Not the last Gasp - a community (Greensville, Ont.)'s environmental struggle.

Dotting the landscape across much of North America are old quarries that once supplied building stone or other materials to local industries. Most of these quarries now lie abandoned, often filled with water, waiting for the Earth to reclaim them as the years go by.

But as the garbage crisis builds in our throw-away society, many such properties offer the promise of fresh profits. With dollar signs glinting in their eyes, many owners are eager to cash in on the landfill bonanza. Environmentalists fear that if governments allow the conversion of quarries into garbage dumps, it will make a mockery of environmental safeguards and will put entire communities at risk.

The village of Greensville, on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment in Southern Ontario, provides a key example of both the dangers of quarry land-fills and of the strength and persistence of grass-roots opposition to them. Greensville's local 200-acre limestone quarry is the site of a struggle between the owner, Steetley Quarry Products, and the community -- a struggle which will set the terms for similar battles throughout Ontario. The outcome of this David and Goliath encounter will reverberate beyond the province as well, as more and more communities find themselves immersed in unwanted confrontations over environmental issues.

Six years ago Steetley (aka Red-land) applied to "rehabilitate" the quarry by landfilling with 26 million tonnes of solid waste. Residents of Greensville and the surrounding area were horrified; the quarry sits on the aquifer that supplies their drinking water. They organized as GASP -- Greensville Against Serious Pollution, and engaged in a long and arduous fight to stop the dump and save their ground-water and their community.

Anyone who has ever been involved in formal hearings before an environmental assessment board or municipal planning agency will be able to imagine only too vividly the enormous amounts of time, energy and resources that the citizens poured into this effort. Mark Osborne of GASP recounts how members of the group essentially put their lives on hold for six years while they fought the proposal. Together with other opponents, they also depleted their financial resources -- a total of over two million dollars.

The hearing, by the Province's Consolidated Hearings Board, began in December of 1992 and ended 19 months later, after a total of 140 days of testimony. GASP had an excellent case, and on March 17, 1995, the Board finally announced its decision in their favour. "The Board concluded that the location of a 26 million tonne landfill within the fractured bedrock of the South Quarry would pose an unacceptable risk to local groundwater and surface water resources," the decision read. It went on to state that "landfilling operations could dramatically change the character of the area surrounding the quarry, and residents within surrounding communities would suffer continuing and further social impacts."

Happy ending? Unfortunately, not yet, and that's what makes this case so critically important now. Steetley refused to accept the Board's decision, and has appealed to the provincial cabinet, requesting a new hearing and a new board. In another ironic twist, the Ministry of the Environment, which refused to take a position during the hearings, is supporting the appeal in what appears to be a turf war between government bureaucracies.

Mark Osborne expresses GASP's frustration. "With the launch of this appeal our lives are once more in limbo," he says. "With our resources gone and our energies drained, we have had it. Enough is enough!"

GASP and its allies have collected several thousand letters to the government setting out the reasons why the company's appeal must be rejected. With three schools and some ninety homes within half a kilometer of the quarry property, the local school board voted unanimously to have copies of the protest letter distributed to the schools and taken home by the children for their parents to sign!

Osborne points out that the ominous implications of the Steetley appeal extend far beyond Greensville. "As there are many quarry owners waiting their turn to apply for a license to fill their mined-out properties with garbage, it is vital that the Board's decision be upheld."

As this story goes to press, Cabinet has yet to decide on the appeal. If the Ontario government chooses to overturn the Hearings Board's decision, we can all wave goodbye to Environmental Assessment as a tool for protecting our homes, our health and our environment. Leaving vital matters like this to the "discretion" of a small group of powerful politicians in league with corporate interests makes the rule of law little more than a bad joke. Greensville is fighting this battle for all of us.

For information or to help with this cause, contact GASP at (905) 627-4647 or 628-0887. Helen Forsey is an activist and freelance writer who lives in rural Ontario.
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Author:Helen Forsey
Publication:Natural Life
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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