By Stew Slater
In response to recent comments from Perth South Township councillors about the potential for stopping a proposed gravel pit southwest of St. Marys, the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) sent out a news release last week stating “new pit applications are exempt from approvals under the Conservation Authorities Act.”
“I believe members of our staff had seen media reports about the (councillors’) comments, and it was felt that (UTRCA) needed to make a statement about what the conservation authority’s role might be,” said UTRCA Land Use Regulation Officer Mark Snowsell, in an interview with the Journal Argus.
Following a meeting Tuesday, Jan, 24, at which members of the grassroots community group Friends of Transvaal made a delegation to Perth South Council, Councillor Jim Aitcheson was quoted in a Journal Argus article as stating: “(UTRCA) are the ones who ultimately make the decision.”
The same article noted councillors made no mention of the need to rezone the property — located partially on Thames River floodplain at the terminus of Perth Road 127 — on which a London-based numbered company proposed to commence gravel extraction. “Councillor Stuart Arkett wondered if there was a piece of legislation that might stop the pit,” the article reported.
According to Snowsell, however, those who aim to prevent the London company’s proposal from going through have two clear avenues to direct their efforts . . . and neither of them involve UTRCA.
“There is certainly a role for us to play as a conservation authority, but it is not one that ends up in us providing an approval,” the Land Use Regulation Officer said.
Until the mid-2000s, Snowsell explained, there was an opportunity for conservation authority input regarding proposed aggregate pits included in two pieces of provincial legislation: the Conservation Authorities Act and the Aggregate Resources Act. He says conservation authority leadership was not opposed when the decision was made at that time to eliminate the input opportunity in the Conservation Authorities Act, because it was seen as a duplication of resources to have both avenues remain open. So now, with regard to the approval that all proposed pits must receive from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), there is just one opportunity for conservation authorities to provide input.
“Some of the things we look for are the effects on flood waters from stockpiling and berming soil, site drainage, slope stability, proximity to wetlands, rehabilitation options, and potential impacts of extraction on the groundwater table,” explained the UTRCA news release, regarding what concerns the conservation authority might raise when submitting information to the MNR.
Snowsell said the news release was sent out partly as general information, but also partly in direct response to the comments of Perth South Council as reported in the Journal Argus.
In an interview after the news release was sent out, he specifically mentioned the suggestion that Friends of Transvaal should contact UTRCA and encourage the conservation authority to reject the London numbered company’s application.
“It was unfortunate that (councillors) felt that was the case.”
Snowsell noted no UTRCA staff members were present at the Jan. 22 Perth South meeting, but “we learned about the comments, and we composed an email to staff and councillors explaining that this wasn’t, in fact, the case.”
Snowsell also stressed that, contrary to comments made during the meeting, Perth South councillors do also have an avenue for rejecting a proposal. That role, the UTRCA expert says, is spelled out within the provincial Planning Act, and gives the municipality the authority to reject the application due to zoning issues. And it’s at that level that the UTRCA often has a second opportunity to provide input — this time directly to the municipality as it considers an application for a zoning change.
Snowsell says UTRCA staff has been keeping up to speed on the London numbered company’s application, not just because of media reports but also because it has already provided formal input about the proposed pit. That input was provided directly to a Kitchener-based consultant acting on behalf of the numbered company, after a request in the fall of 2012.
The Land Use Resource Officer says it’s standard practice for proponents to request input from the conservation authority, in recognition that they’ll eventually be required to provide such documentation as part of the application to the MNR.
Snowsell provided a copy to the Journal Argus of the two-page letter that was sent to the consultant on Nov. 9. And it’s clear that, despite the fact there’s no avenue for UTRCA to reject the proposal, the conservation authority has serious concerns with it.
“Based on our review of the information provided and following a visit to the property . . . we are extremely concerned that with an extraction setback of only 30 metres from edge of river bank, the stability of the river channel may be compromised,” begins the letter.
And, after highlighting other concerns, the letter concludes by stating “the Conservation Authorit-y has serious reservations regarding the degree of aggregate extraction within the floodplain (and) we request that a meeting be arranged to discuss the issue further. We are aware of some innovative floodplain extraction and rehabilitation projects in other parts of the province and perhaps a similar approach might be warranted.”
Asked if there are other gravel pits within the Upper Thames watershed at which extraction takes place on the floodplain and below the water table, Snowsell said there is. But he noted there are innovative approaches that can be utilized to mitigate the effects of such extraction.
And he said a critical element of any Aggregate Resources Act approval by the MNR is a requirement that rehabilitation of the property after extraction is complete must be part of the initial proposal.