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'Lay of the land': Country living proves problematic for resident

Oro-Medonte man concerned with size and speed of gravel trucks on rural roads
Doug Varty moved to Oro-Medonte Township six years ago when he retired. Living on the Oro Moraine, Varty says he's concerned about the impact aggregate pits are having on the moraine and the aquifer that sits below it.

Editor's note: The following is Part 2 in a series. To read Part 1, click here

When Doug Varty was looking for a place to retire six years ago, Oro-Medonte was high on the list of places he was considering.

The township was a 45-minute drive to Vaughan, it was close to his cottage in Huntsville and it provided ample opportunity to get out and discover the area’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities.

A retired accountant and former chair of Ontario’s Species Conservation Action Agency, Varty was convinced he’d found the perfect spot. Together with his wife, Charon, they purchased a home in a small development near the crossroads of Old Barrie Road and Oro-Medonte Line 9 North.

Shortly after arriving, he discovered he was living on the Oro Moraine, a formation of sand and gravel deposited during the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet 11,000 to 13,000 years ago.

About 26 kilometres long, the moraine runs between Barrie and Orillia and covers about 17,000 hectares, with about 60 per cent covered by forest. The remainder is used for mixed farming, rural houses, recreation and aggregate extraction.  

“It wasn’t until I moved here and started to understand the lay of the land that I realized we live on the Oro Moraine and under the moraine are the aquifers that provide all of the water to the people who live here,” Varty said. 

He says he’d never heard of the Oro Moraine prior to moving to Oro-Medonte, but was eager to learn all he could about the unique landscape. 

According to the Neptis Foundation, a Canadian charitable foundation that funds and conducts nonpartisan research and education on the growth and change of urban regions, “the Oro Moraine acts as an important groundwater recharge for its immediate area, filtering and controlling flow into the nearby, Minesing Swamp (a provincially significant wetland), among other places.

"Because of its varied terrain and substantial forested areas, it also provides habitat for many plants and animals that are becoming increasingly rare elsewhere in central Ontario," says the foundation. 

Understanding he was now living on an environmentally sensitive and ecologically important area, Varty started to pay more attention to what was going on in the neighbourhood around him.

What he saw concerned him. And he had two main issues. 

The first was the amount of water local aggregate operators needed to wash the materials. The second was the size and speed of the trucks that were hauling the aggregate from the pits to their final destinations.

“I did a quick bit of math and added the top five or six permits to take water issued to aggregate operations and discovered that if they drew the maximum quantity they’re allowed to, they’d probably be drawing as much as all the residents of Oro-Medonte combined,” he said.

Varty’s other concern — the size and speed of gravel trucks on rural roads — is shared by his neighbour Doug Shand.

“The biggest issue is the trucks,” said Shand, who moved to Oro-Medonte about 10 years ago. “When we first moved up, they weren’t pulling as much out of the pit as they are now, but the trucks were much smaller. They were using a regular-sized dump truck.”

Mike McSweeney, executive director of the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (OSSGA), says the only way to move aggregate from where it is extracted to where it is used is by truck.

“Our industry provides training to the drivers who drive on these roads to ensure the safe haulage of the aggregate,” he said. “The industry tries its very best to develop haul routes with the least impact as possible to the community.”

McSweeney said the aggregate industry has always used a variety of trucks to haul aggregates, each one having advantages and disadvantages. The tri-axle trucks or dump trucks are smaller and carry about 22 metric tonnes of material. 

“They are more easily manoeuvrable and are often used for smaller projects,” he said. “The larger trailers or pups will carry a little less than twice that weight. They’re used for larger projects.”

McSweeney says replacing the big trucks with little trucks would double the number of trucks on the road and would lead to more traffic, more dust, and more wear and tear on the road.

He noted that aggregate producers pay a levy, or tax, to the municipalities to help pay for the maintenance of municipal roads that they use on their way from the site to a regional provincial road. 

In 2023, McSweeney said the levy was 22.7 cents per tonne, with 15 per cent going to the county, and 61 per cent going to local municipalities. 

“In Simcoe County, for example, aggregate producers pay approximately $3.5 million annually in levy fees,” he said. “More than half a million of those fees go to the Simcoe County, and more than $2 million go to the local municipalities to help with local road maintenance.”

McSweeney added that despite representing only three per cent of the trucks on the road, the aggregate industry is the only industry to pay such a levy.  

Springwater Township Mayor Jennifer Coughlin is vice chair of the Top Aggregate Producing Municipalities of Ontario, a group of municipal leaders from across the province who are working together to advocate for sustainable solutions that balance their communities’ safety and well-being with the demand for aggregate materials.

“When addressing the concerns of residents, it is important for municipalities to target the concern and not allow an individual operator to tarnish our local aggregate industry’s reputation,” she said.

As concerned as Varty and his neighbours are about aggregate operators in their neighbourhood, their issues pale in comparison to those detailed in the Auditor General of Ontario’s report Value-for-Money Audit: Management of Aggregate Resources.

“Our audit found that the Ministry (Natural Resources and Forestry) is falling short in balancing its competing roles of facilitating the extraction of aggregate resources and minimizing the impacts of aggregate operations, particularly through its role in regulating the industry to ensure approval holders comply with all  necessary requirements,” the report stated.

Among the auditor general’s concerns: 

  • The ministry had a significant shortage of experienced aggregate inspectors, with challenges in recruitment and retention.
  • The limited number of inspectors has contributed to declining and low inspection rates.
  • Non-compliance within the aggregate industry remains high.
  • Despite the high rate of non-compliance, the ministry rarely pursued charges.
  • The ministry did not enforce self-reporting requirements.
  • Fees to extract aggregates are likely too low to cover the costs needed to effectively administer the program.
  • The ministry did not have processes in place to ensure that sites are promptly rehabilitated, and returned to productive use, after extraction is complete.
  • The ministry has not provided the public with complete and accurate information on the supply and demand for aggregates.

BradfordToday and InnisfilToday contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and asked for the total number of pit and quarry inspections done in Oro-Medonte and Springwater last year, the number of violations and the percentage of pits and quarries that self-reported by the annual deadline. No response was received prior to publication of this story. 

Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Wayne Doyle covers the townships of Springwater, Oro-Medonte and Essa for BarrieToday under the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI), which is funded by the Government of Canada
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