Remember the huge groundswell of popular support to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine back in 1999? Thousands of residents of Toronto, York Region and other parts of the GTA attended public meetings, wrote and phoned their MPP and sent enthusiastic letters to newspapers, including this one. Media attention and public outrage fuelled each other, until there was no possible chance that the outcome would be anything other than the complete protection of the Moraine. It was, and still is, one of the best examples of the power of public engagement to shape government policy.
In the years since, however, the shifting government approach to the Moraine has illustrated another fact of public policy: the unfortunate truth of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Among other things, the Moraine is southern Ontario’s so-called rain barrel, the source of drinking water for more than 250,000 people. Yet, despite the area’s ecological importance, in the 15 years since the passage of the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, the level of government support for the area has steadily eroded. In 2001, the province quietly weakened the Act, and then, apparently not wishing to alert the public to the area’s growing vulnerability, the government ignored a legislative requirement to review the policy in 2012, pushing the task back to 2015 (after the next provincial election).
Worse still, last month the province approved the first of several large wind and solar projects proposed on the Moraine. The first project, a 10-megawatt wind farm known as Sumac Ridge, will feature five of the largest wind turbines ever erected in Ontario. They will sit on the scenic hills of Kawartha Lakes, near the Bethany ski hill and just north of the intersection of Highways 35 and 115.
The approval of this wind farm poses an enormous threat to the Moraine, not simply because of the environmental impact of this one project but also because the ruling will be used as a precedent, opening the floodgates for further proposals to build in this once rightly protected area.
Already, just a couple of kilometres from Sumac Ridge, two other 10-MW projects are awaiting approval and, even closer to Toronto, the 20-MW Ganaraska project is slated to be built in Clarington. Meanwhile, in Scugog, a 10-MW solar project is in the queue, despite being located on excellent farm land – a violation of the provisions of the Green Energy Act. At a time of burgeoning population, do we really want to be trading prime farmland and water sources for the least reliable and most expensive electrical power generators?
The original Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act (ORMPA) was an extremely tough piece of legislation. It made it virtually impossible to build a new barn in the area, never mind develop a massive power plant. So how have we deviated so profoundly from those rules? Quite simply, the government created a loophole. The Green Energy Act allows the provisions of that Act to supersede all other legislation – even environmental protection laws.
The government has exploited this loophole despite a clear mandate from the public to protect this vital area. Ironically, given the wide geographical impact of the Moraine, far more urban residents of the GTA expressed opposition to development there than ever fought the gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville. With little publicity, over 2,800 people submitted objections to the Sumac Ridge project – a staggeringly large demonstration of public opposition. The Environmental Review Tribunal ignored those comments, ignored the almost universal opposition by affected municipal governments and ignored the very legislation that was designed to protect the Moraine.
Surely the same Liberal MPPs who voted to protect the Moraine back in 1999 aren’t willing to see vast sections of this important region ruined, especially not for the sake of wind turbines that could just as easily be located elsewhere in the province – in fact, based on wind velocities, should be placed elsewhere.
The time has come for those MPPs, and all residents of the GTA who care about the Moraine, to join the municipal politicians and citizen groups who have continued the battle to protect it. A last-ditch appeal of the Sumac Ridge decision will be heard by the Tribunal later this month. If saving a few votes in Oakville and Mississauga was worth changing government energy policies, surely the protection of one of the most important natural landforms in our province demands nothing less.
Steve Gilchrist is in an environmentalist and was MPP for Scarborough East from 1995 to 2003. As minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, he kick-started the successful campaign to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine.
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