Blasting quarry would expose Cataract residents to unhealthy levels of air pollution, new analysis suggests

A review of Canadian Building Materials’ (CBM) air quality study for a proposed mega blasting quarry in the village of Cataract came to a stark conclusion. Unless quarry operators are able to perform maximum mitigation measures at all times, levels of harmful pollutants would likely exceed standards put in place to protect human and environmental health, creating an increased risk of deadly heart problems, lung cancers and other respiratory issues for nearby residents.

In December 2022, CBM submitted an application to the Town of Caledon for an 800-acre blasting quarry that would consume a large mass of current farmland on both the north and south sides of Charleston Sideroad between Mississauga Road and Shaws Creek Road.

While Caledon is dotted with pits as a result of its unique geographic position on the Oak Ridges Moraine—where large deposits of sand and gravel were left behind by the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet—the CBM quarry would be the first of its kind in the municipality that would drill and blast into fragmented bedrock to loosen up material for extraction. The potential for noise, dust and other air pollution, along with truck traffic, the threat of flyrock, and the serious environmental destruction the quarry would cause to Caledon’s pristine countryside has many residents concerned and putting up strong opposition to the project.

Cataract resident Tony Sevelka has completed significant research, and has published peer reviewed papers on incidents involving flyrock from blasting quarries. Flyrock is exactly as the name suggests, chunks of rock thrown into the air as a result of blasting quarry operations. Sevelka has documented hundreds of incidents across the globe, many of them with fatal consequences.

“Land use planners, like most people, are unaware of the indifference of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to the dangers of flyrock, the ultimate adverse effect of blasting rock. Since the Aggregate Resources Act (ARA) does not define flyrock, MNRF has no effective solution to the problem of flyrock, which can never be mitigated no matter how one decides to define flyrock,” Sevelka wrote in a September email sent to local councillors, MPPs and community advocates.

While incidents of flyrock are rare, when it does occur it is almost certain to cause damage. Flyrock is just one instance in which the quarry will impact the surrounding Caledon community.

A large proportion of Caledon residents migrated north from Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto; escaping the dense urban landscape of the city to what has been dubbed the “greenest town in Ontario”. Whether it is retirees looking to spend their glory days surrounded by nature, or young parents who want greenspace for their children to play, the general consensus is that greener is better.

But the quarry proposal has the potential to change that. While the forests that Caledon is known for will remain, the trees themselves will not have the capacity to filter out the harmful dust and particulate matter radiating up from the quarry and into the community’s air.

Along with other toxic pollutants like nitrous oxide — an extremely potent greenhouse gas —hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide, quarries are huge sources of dust and particulate matter, which can dramatically alter air quality and cause harm to human health.

Particulate matter refers to chemical particles with a diameter of less than 44 microns, roughly half the diameter of a grain of beach sand. Quarries are known to produce high concentrations of PM 10 which is particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns, and PM 2.5 which has a diameter of 2.5 microns.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, PM 2.5 poses a grave risk to human health as particles can get deep into the lungs and may even infiltrate the bloodstream impacting the heart. Studies in Europe have found that the prevalence rate of respiratory diseases increased more than two percent for each daily increase of PM 2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Furthermore, an early 2000s study by the American Cancer Society concluded that overall mortality as well as the mortality of cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer increased by 4 percent, 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively, for every 10 micrograms per cubic metre increase of PM 2.5 exposure. The researchers came to their conclusion after ruling out smoking, diet, drinking, occupation and other risk factors.

“There is no safe threshold to breathe in fine particles,” a post on the American Lung Association website states.

The Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) has published Ambient Air Quality Standards, set in 2016, stating nobody should be exposed to more than 27 micrograms per cubic metre in a single day, and a daily average for the year should not exceed more than 8.8 micrograms per cubic metre. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stricter standards. In 2015, the World Health Assembly “adopted a landmark resolution on air quality and health, recognizing air pollution as a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cancer, and the economic toll they take.”

The intergovernmental organization recommends a maximum daily allowance of 15 micrograms per cubic metre of PM 2.5 and an annual allowance of 5 micrograms per cubic metre.

“The Ministry of Environment numbers are the legal dose in Ontario. The World Health Organization numbers aren’t legally enforceable in Canada, or in Ontario, but they represent more recent science on the perceived health impacts of PM 2.5,” Doug Lyons, a licensed professional engineer with over 30 years experience as an industrial air pollution control consultant, said.

Lyons, who has worked with the aggregate industry; federal, provincial and municipal governments; and community organizations, has been assisting the Forks of the Credit Preservation Group in its attempt to vet the environmental studies produced by CBM in order to have strong arguments in opposition to the quarry.

He analyzed the dust study submitted to the Town in late 2022 and compared it with his own modelling to determine the impacts on the local air quality from the proposed blasting quarry. The study submitted was developed using calculation methods and logging tools from the US Environmental Protection Agency which Lyons said is industry practice for this type of study.

“This type of dust study is intended to show how much dust control is required in order to comply with air quality standards,” Lyons said.

But instead of using the study to determine the level of controls required, CBM undertook its analysis with the assumption that maximum dust control would be put in place at all times. The aggregate producers assumed 95 percent dust control on all roads, and that all excavated material will be continually saturated with water and will continue applying water to dust piles, excavating equipment, etc.

“It's very, very unrealistic to assume they can maintain 95 percent dust control all day, every day, week after week, year after year, throughout the entire lifetime of this project,” Lyons said. “They're going to have bad days when they can't control.”

Perhaps more concerning is just how close Peel air quality already is to surpassing Ministry of Environment standards. There is no accurate baseline dust data for Caledon so CBM used Brampton north Environment Canada data for its analysis which is currently 14 micrograms per cubic meter as a daily maximum, and 7.7 micrograms as an annual maximum. While CBM has its own monitoring data for properties north of the proposed quarry, it is likely places downwind would have greater levels and thus Lyons suspected they chose to use Brampton numbers as a conservative estimate.

“If the City of Brampton data is close to what Caledon was experiencing, and we're at 90 percent of the standard already, on an annual average basis, which shows there's very little room for new dust sources in the Caledon area,” Lyons said. “Looking at the World Health Organization standards, we're almost at their daily maximum standard already. And we're already over their annual maximum standard.”

This is before the quarry is even built.

CBM predicted maximum dust concentration would range from 62 percent to 96 percent. But that is where the study ended, which Lyons said begs the question of the air quality impacts if the quarry does not maintain the high levels of dust control.

“Because any industrial site is going to have good days or bad days, even if the operators or the public already have the best of intentions to maintain a high degree of adjustment for a long property,” he said. “There are gonna be days when it's very dry and dusty. There will be days when the wind is blowing a high level and they can't water fast. There's going to be days with a lot of different breakdowns.”

A recent report from Ontario’s Auditor General found that the aggregate industry is essentially running unsupervised, with lackluster inspection from Ministry officials, meaning there will be little to no penalty for failure to uphold CBM to its own standards.

In his analysis, Lyons lowered the moisture content of the excavated material and dropped the control efficiency on the roads from the 95 percent in the CBM report, to 90 percent. He did this, mixed with environmental measures that would create a “worst case scenario”, to determine how the local air quality would be impacted.

When these controls are applied to existing dust concentrations, combined with the current levels in the area, he concluded the PM 2.5 for the quarry area and extending 200 to 300 metres into Cataract village are higher than Ministry recommendations.

“What has always been the preliminary conclusions that I've come to from the study right now is starting with the existing dust study provided, it does not provide enough context to explore the potential for air quality impacts on the local community,” Lyons said. “Our own modeling shown here in summary, suggests that a very slight reduction in dust controls at the quarry will result in exceedances of the Ontario PM 2.5 standard off the property and into the community.”

David Hanratty, director of land, resource and environment at Votorantim Cimentos North America, the parent company of CBM, told The Pointer in an email statement that because he has not seen the study from the FCPG, he cannot comment on its findings.

“We are, however, confident in the rigorous methodology and results of our air quality report, and the conclusions presented in it, which was completed by experts in this field of study,” he added. “We would also like to point out that CBM had this study peer reviewed by other experts as well. Both firms concluded that the quarry, if approved, would be operating below regulatory air quality emission limits.”

But the sobering reality is that the air quality measures will not stop CBM from obtaining an extraction license. The aggregate operators currently have an application in with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to obtain a Class A extractive license for below the water table. The quarry will be operating under licenses provided by the MNRF under the Aggregate Resources Act, not the Environmental Protection Act from the Ministry of Environment, which Lyons said is a jurisdictional issue.

“Because this is getting its operating license through the Aggregate Resources Act, not the Environmental Protection Act, those dust control measures aren’t part of the permit. So there's no legislative backing to compel them to follow the plans that they've laid up in their study,” he said.

The onus will fall on the municipality to ensure that its aggregate policies are in tip top shape to hold the quarry operators accountable for its pollutants. In October 2022, the FCPG presented a study from the Top Ten Aggregate Producing Municipalities of Ontario (TAPMO) which showed that Caledon was falling dead last in the quality of its aggregate policies based on a cumulative sum of the following nine criteria: air quality, blasting, cumulative effects, First Nations consultation, haul routes, hydrogeological impacts, natural heritage disruption, noise and surface water issues.

The study prompted the previous council to implement an interim control bylaw (ICBL), pausing approvals for any new aggregate operations within the area as the Town works to update its policies. In October 2023, the ICBL was extended an additional year — a move that CBM has appealed to the Ontario Land Tribunal. That matter will have a pre-merit hearing on March 11. Due to backlogs, it’s unlikely the OLT will make any decision before the ICBL expires later this year.

Throughout the duration of the ICBL, town staff have made very little progress on the review and rewriting of its policies, prompting outrage from residents and members of the Aggregate Resources Community Working Group.

Last month the town announced it had finalized the acquisition of a project manager to undertake the remainder of the process and at the community meeting February 7, Mayor Annette Groves announced that through the 2024 budget, the town would also be hiring an additional planner with specific expertise in the aggregate industry.

The move is an attempt to alleviate the pressure on overburdened town staff that former employees have said left them struggling to make progress on key projects.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer