Auditor general: aggregate industry not in compliance; ministry not providing oversight

AG report confirms complaints of aggregate industry by Puslinch council

PUSLINCH – A damning report by Ontario’s Auditor General on the state of the aggregate industry echoes concerns raised for decades by Puslinch council and its citizens.

Namely, there is not enough compliance by aggregate operators and not enough oversight by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Council discussed the Dec. 6 report after John McNie, a member of the Mill Creek Stewards citizens group, delegated to council on Jan. 10.

“We have a powerful new tool in our municipal toolbox, the AG’s report, which makes 2024 a year of opportunity,” McNie suggested to council.

But it’s a small window of opportunity he added, noting the ministry’s response, also included in the auditor general’s report, is that “there is more work to be done,” “reviews are underway,” and that the ministry “will explore options.”

“I don’t see the province taking any action,” McNie said in an interview. “But it’s still critical that we act like mosquitoes and keep bugging away.”

The aggregate industry is essential to building homes, roads and other buildings and Ontario is rich with aggregate deposits.

Mostly in southern Ontario, aggregate extraction is big business and directly impacts about 10 municipalities including Puslinch, which is among the top five producers.

It’s the job of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to issue permits to extract aggregate, to monitor operations and ensure compliance, and to balance that with the need for agricultural land and urban spaces.

According to the auditor general, the ministry is falling short on several fronts:

  • a shortage of experienced aggregate inspectors has led to declining and low inspection rates;
  • there are high non-compliance rates within the aggregate industry, yet despite this, the ministry rarely pursues charges or issues fines;
  • the ministry does not enforce the self-reporting requirement;
  • fees collected are not high enough to cover the cost of the program;
  • sites are not being rehabilitated and returned to productive use after extraction is complete;
  • there is not complete or accurate information about the supply and demand of aggregates and therefore the need for so much extraction is not established or understood;
  • low fees for extracting virgin material provide no incentive to use recycled aggregate; and
  • outdated information systems mean it’s difficult to track submissions or collect data for an overview of aggregate operations in Ontario.

The failure to conduct inspections increases the risk of environmental impacts and also “signals to both the regulated community and concerned stakeholders that there are few consequences associated with non-compliance,” states the auditor general report.

The auditor general found that over the past five years, the ministry issued only two fines, for a combined total of $1,230, for unpaid fees. This represented 0.4% of the total fees outstanding in December 2022.

As for the annual self-reporting requirement, “we found 11 out of a sample of 80 sites continued to produce aggregate in 2021 despite never having submitted a self-assessment report for 2020, which should have resulted in an automatic suspension,” the report states.

McNie said the report confirms what his group has long suspected: that the compliance requirements are “just words” and that the province is not properly balancing aggregate industry wants against local community needs.

McNie noted council has done what it could – writing letters to aggregate operators and the ministry, taking a stand on policy statements, insisting aggregate haulers clean up municipal roads, and fighting appeals at the Ontario Land Tribunal.

“And how did our province and the aggregate industry respond?” McNie asked, then provided this list:

  • there was transient road cleanup on Victoria Road following a township demand, but Concession 2 has been left filthy and with extensive detour traffic this year;
  • the Roszell Pit wetland issue saw no change in extraction timing or amounts.;
  • the Mill Creek pit has over the last year, become a processing site, following the “every shovelful” excavation of its south arm, completely contrary to written promises by the University of Guelph, which owns the pit;
  • the Aberfoyle 2 Pit on Victoria Road has applied for a doubling of its tonnage limits along with a request for a 30% increase in hours and days with all of that processing directed to Aberfoyle 1, a pit that should have closed 40 years ago;
  • the Neubauer Pit has continued to use Concession 2 as a road crossing;
  • The Lanci Pit, essentially finished according to their latest expansion application, was reopened for the last half of the year;
  • the LaFarge Pit dumped thousands of tonnes of excess soil into its pond on Concession 2 without any rehabilitation supervision from the province. A request for information from our group required six weeks of investigation by the province to determine that testing had actually been done and the results met standards, a little late if the soil had been contaminated;
  • Puslinch requests for enforcement of site plan conditions at the McNally Pit have fallen on deaf ears; and
  • provincial monitoring and enforcement of excess soil/hydrovac dumping on the Capital Pit on Wellington Road 34 lands has been non-existent, again despite Puslinch complaints.

Municipalities have an opportunity to comment on a permit application before it gets ministry approval, but after that they have no say on what is happening on a site and must rely on the ministry to follow through on complaints.

McNie said there are things the township can do that will make a difference. Among his suggestions:

  • hire a dedicated staff person to work on aggregate affairs as they arise;
  • fine the industry for unclean roads and neglecting heritage buildings on their sites;
  • support OPP for stringent enforcement of haul routes;
  • communicate to the public any new or revised pit applications;
  • develop interim control bylaws and stringent excess soil bylaws;
  • write letters of complaint, constantly, to the ministry regarding monitoring and enforcement;
  • support efforts of TAPMO (Top Aggregate Producing Municipalities of Ontario) to hire an executive director and work collectively with other affected municipalities on common issues; and
  • take a tougher stance on municipal courtesies extended to the aggregate industry.

“Each individual action may be seen as too small to be effective,” McNie acknowledged.

“We in Puslinch, where mosquitoes are rampant, recognize the cumulative and irritating power of small.”

Mayor James Seeley is currently chair of TAPMO and he mentioned the organization hopes to get funding to hire an executive director. Currently work is done by the chair and staff of the chair’s municipality.

Seeley hoped to initiate conversation with the University of Guelph to negotiate an agreement regarding land use for property it owns in Puslinch.

Land was donated to the university by an alumnus in 1985 and it was to be used as an agriculture research site. But with a need for more finances, the university partnered with an aggregate operator to mine the land for sand and gravel.

Puslinch Township responded by changing its Official Plan to protect the land, but the university took the township to the Ontario Municipal Board and Puslinch lost.

It is now the Mill Creek Pit, which last year successfully applied to expand operations into the buffer zone.

“The university promised they would make this pit a model of how to extract aggregate in an environmentally friendly way. It would be progressive and later would be a teaching/research centre for rehabilitation,” McNie said.

“There has been some superficial rehab, but none of those promises have been met.

“Last year they were out there getting every last shovelful.”

This is why Seeley was intent on getting a land use agreement with the university, which has several parcels of donated land in Puslinch, so there can at least be discussion with the township before a new use, especially aggregate use, is contemplated.

Council agreed to have staff initiate that conversation.

McNie, who is a U of G alumnus himself, said it’s sad that the university, which claims to be all about research into rural affairs, would turn a blind eye to the impact of aggregate quarries on rural life.

“It would be nice to see the University of Guelph step up and support these changes with their expertise,” he said.

“They could play a critical role in improving the situation.”