A scar on the face of the earth

Quarry1

Of course, when I was back in Toronto this week I couldn’t very well pass up the opportunity to visit my parents – it was still an hour from Toronto, but a heck of a lot closer than from Kingston. It was necessarily a short visit, by the time I got there after my doctor’s appointment, and I had to leave mid-day the next day. However, Mom and I did have time to run out to a few places in the morning.

One of our destinations took us past the quarry northeast of their house. I don’t go that way much anymore, though at one point, back in high school, it was a semi-regular route to school. If it’s a nice day I like to stop and look out over the quarry from one of two lookouts along the road. At least from this point in the operations, I find the vista beautiful. The northwest corner of the quarry is old, and for as long as I can remember the bottom has been filled with water. The water there is a cool crystal green-blue, and on a sunny day sparkles like it’s scattered with diamonds.

The above photo is taken from the broad-side (rather than the end) viewpoint, which looks out over the midpoint of the quarry pit. To the right is the old sections, filled with water. To the left is still active, with the quarry offices and a few roads. You’ll need to really click on the image, and then click on “All Sizes” on the subsequent page, to get the full effect (or you could just click here).

Quarry6

Quarries fall into the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) category. The sort of thing that most folks recognize is necessary, and/or have no particular problem with – they just don’t want it in their neighbourhood. I’m sort of on the fence about them. They are a bit of a scar on the landscape, creating a permanent destruction to habitat. The area will never be the same again, it’s not like logging where the forest has the potential to regrow, if given sufficient time and resources. The landscape is not going to refill itself, in the case of a quarry.

Quarry13

This is taken to the extreme in the case of mountaintop removal mining, itself a type of quarrying. This affront to the landscape was blogged about by many people, the first that I was aware of being Julie Zickefoose. It’s a bit shocking that whole mountains can be removed by people. If you think a hole in the ground changes the landscape, try the removal of the undulating peaks of the Appalachians. This satellite view (taken from Google Earth) is of a mountaintop quarry near Fayetteville, West Virginia, one of the areas Julie talks about. You can see the corrugations of the feeder streams running into the valley creeks surrounding the mountains, and then there’s the scar left by the mining operations. It’s more shocking from ground level – some of the photos on Julie’s blog are very alarming.

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The largest limestone quarry mine is at Rogers City, Michigan. It’s shown above, with the town just to the left. The quarry is expansive – about 5.6 km (3.5 miles) across. It’s three or four times the size of the neighbouring town, whose population is about 3,300. I have to assume that much of the town is populated by the quarry’s workers, or employees of the associated cement or limestone processing plants.

Quarry9

There are two quarries near my parents’, and neither are mountaintop removal mines, or as big as the Rogers City mine, so their visible impact on the landscape, at least at ground level, is less obvious, though still present. Both quarries are limestone quarries. The Niagara Escarpment, which runs from Niagara Falls all the way north to Georgian Bay, is a ridge of limestone that protrudes in cliffs and outcroppings. It supports a unique collection of habitats, in part because its rocky nature has made it less suitable for farming and therefore more landscape has been spared or allowed to re-naturalize, but also because of the structure of the rock below.

Quarry12

(I also want to mention an observation on limestone, though don’t have a good spot in the flow of the post, so I’m tagging it here. Limestone is very basic – the opposite of acidic – and so tends to neutralize acid rain when it falls on landscapes with limestone bases. In the north, on the Canadian Shield, the base is granite, which doesn’t neutralize acid rain. As a result, lakes and groundwater on the shield has more acidity problems that affect the insects, fish and other wildlife there than those south of the sheild. Also, limestone is a very soft rock, and is prone to easy erosion, which can and does shape landscape formations such as the “flowerpot” stacks of Flowerpot Island.)

Quarry11

I recall while growing up the occasional rattle of the windows in their panes when the quarry detonated some explosives, but the quarry had little influence on my life otherwise, except as a curiosity. However, I had friends who lived along a road that backed on to the quarry. As the quarry aged, and by necessity expanded its borders, it began to encroach upon these residences. At some point after we’d all graduated from high school and I’d lost touch with many of these friends, the quarry bought out the residents, and had the homes demolished. I haven’t been down there since, but the satellite shows a stark picture. This is probably the most direct negative influence quarries have on people and communities. A more indirect effect, not only on human but also on natural communities, is the pollution of local streams and groundwater with tailings or silt runoff, particularly true of mountaintop mining.

Quarry7

However, this rock is also ideal for many beneficial human purposes. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, but even as far back as the Middle Ages, limestone was a popular building material. In fact, so much of Canada’s original capital, Kingston, Ontario (the city nearest me now), was built out of limestone that it’s sometimes nicknamed the “Limestone City”. Limestone is still used in building, but is more often used as siding, in the form of thin slabs, than large building blocks.

Beyond this, it’s also used in cement and mortar, in aggregate (the crushed rock used as the base for roads), in toothpaste, in paper, paint, tiles and other materials as a white pigment and inexpensive filler, in bread and cereals as a source of calcium, and in many other processes and products. It’s hard to think of what our society would be like without this versatile and widely-used material. And it has to come from somewhere. Thus the NIMBY dilemma.

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One of the issues is that the distribution of limestone often coincides with the distribution of people. In the more northern parts of Ontario, the more sparsely populated, the rock is granite. In the south, the rock is limestone, but there are also more people using the landscape. It would be easy to solve the NIMBY problem if we could simply shift operations to the north – the environmental issues would still exist, but it would be out of sight, and therefore out of mind, for most people. But you have to mine where the resources are, so that’s not really an option. It doesn’t seem as though there’s a satisfactory solution, unfortunately, and I anticipate quarries to remain a source of conflict for as long as we consume the material they produce.

Quarry2

There are some monster machines in quarries. As we were trying to get a peek in to another part of the quarry, this giant boulder-mover (I’m sure it has a more official name among the quarry industry) rolled up the quarry road and stopped at the stop sign before crossing the sideroad. It’s monsterous. I didn’t get a good shot of the driver, looking puny behind the steering wheel, but imagine me coming only 2/3rds of the way up the wheel. Yeah. Monsterous. But then, to be efficient in its operations, the quarry really does need to move this rock in bulk.

Quarry5

There isn’t much wildlife there, though, even in the older, abandoned parts. I imagine there are problems with dissolved minerals in the water that makes it unable to support much. And yet, down there on a little spit of dirt, was a pair of Canada Geese. I doubt they bred there, they’re probably either post-breeding dispersals or migrants, but in either case they seemed content to use it as a pit-stop. Certainly lots of water to paddle in, and couldn’t ask for much more privacy.

Quarry3

As we were looking down on the vista from the overlook of the first photo, a vehicle caught my eye. It was parked off to the right, near the water. It looked like a police van. I couldn’t think of a good reason a police van would be in the middle of a quarry except for an investigation (did someone dump a body down the hill?). But they appeared to be putting up signs.

Quarry4

Pulling out my telephoto lens revealed the answer: they were setting up for target practice! If you want a remote, unpopulated area within the densely-populated Toronto region where you don’t run any risk of someone wandering through, it’s hard to do much better than an old quarry.

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6 responses to “A scar on the face of the earth

  1. Great post. The police at the end add…something. (Besides lead!)

    Same issues here, of course. The iconic Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver–a limestone quarry. Aldergrove Lake east of Vancouver was a gravel quarry. (If they’re near population centres they can be prettified or recreationalized.)

    Otherwise, scars. Gravel mining along rivers is particularly damaging, to salmon, sturgeon, others. The Oregon Forestsnail favours the woodlands that grow above gravel deposits. Unfortunately it’s a snail.

    Yep, dilemma.

  2. Suggesting that quarries are a NIMBY issue is missing the mark. Quarries are a NIMBY issue in that you are more likely to be aware of events happening in your back yard, but giant quarries effect more than the nearest neighbours! These are not little private operations that will be quarried out in a few years. These are major disruptions that will never heal. The Dufferin 6th line quarry is the largest in Canada and will permanently break one of the last wildlife corridors extending through a highly populated area. Extending the quarry will require the pumping of water from the water shed into perpetuity!! How short-sighted is that? All for about a 15 year supply of gravel. And while it is not removing a mountaintop, Dufferin did create the Dufferin gap, one of the events that raised awareness of the distruction of the escarpment. There are alternatives. Smaller mines in less sensitive areas, fewer, better-planned roads (eg. no Niagara peninsula highway!!),and the recycling of asphalt, rare here but common in Europe.

  3. Well balanced presentation of the issues, Seabrooke. It’s never as simple as we’d like to make it, though emotionally I’m in the less-quarries camp myself.

  4. themarvelousinnature

    The Buchart Gardens are an old quarry, too, aren’t they, Hugh? There are some really nice quarry rehabilitation projects out there, once the quarry is shut down. It’s hard to do much with an active quarry, though. And yes, it’s much easier to effect change or conservation to protect a charismatic megafauna than it is something like a snail, even though they’re both endangered.

    It’s true, Horsin’around, that there are also larger ecosystem or regional-level issues that arise because of quarry, but you can still put it in a NIMBY context – it’s just the backyard is bigger. If not here, then where? You can’t mine limestone from the granite shield. The reasons the escarpment is good for quarrying, and remains forested as a wildlife corridor, are unfortunately the same reasons. I agree the recycling of asphalt should be practiced more than it is.

    I think all of us nature folk are in that camp, Wren! I try to maintain an unbiased mind on these issues, though, as much as my heart really wants to take sides.

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