Let's fight to save Escarpment

Let's fight to save Escarpment
Brendan Kelly
The Hamilton Spectator
In recent times, Canadians have had more and more occasions to observe governments that have become arrogant and have compromised, ignored, or even imposed their agenda against the public will. A particularly odious example of this is the current Ontario government's violation of the spirit of due process in its decision to blast a highway through an ecologically sensitive portion of the Niagara Escarpment.

In spite of strong objections from the city of Burlington and Halton region, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) has identified a corridor approximately one kilometre wide where the proposed mid-peninsula highway will cut through the Escarpment. Then the mid-peninsula highway will undergo an environmental assessment (EA), at which point the city of Burlington and the region of Halton will be involved in the process.

However, without prior meaningful input by local stakeholders, the EA will have very little room to manoeuvre, except to determine whether the route should be adjusted a few metres north or south to minimize environmental damage.

The Niagara Escarpment is one of 12 natural environments in Canada that UNESCO, an agency of the United Nations, has declared as a special biosphere reserve. The Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves contains several recommendations for the management of such special ecological treasures. In particular, condition 14 under Objective IV.1 states:

"(To integrate the function of environmentally sensitive areas) ensure that the local community participate in planning and management of these biosphere reserves."

Indeed, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves has acknowledged his awareness of the need to protect the Niagara Escarpment biosphere with these comments:

"I fully believe in protecting the Niagara Escarpment. I believe that the NEC (Niagara Escarpment Commission) plays a valuable role in protecting what I think is a great natural resource in the province for many years to come."

These comments would suggest that the Ontario government is aware of the importance of preserving the Niagara Escarpment and involving the local jurisdictions in anything that might be potentially injurious to this biosphere reserve. However, the MTO plan to bulldoze a highway through the Escarpment stands in stark contrast to the position expressed by Eves. The MTO initiative began with a "Needs Assessment" in which the implications for the environment and the Niagara Escarpment were not even considered.

No doubt, with anticipated population and economic growth in these regions, over the next two or three decades, transportation needs will have to be addressed. However, the full range of alternatives such as expanded GO transit from Niagara, possible expansion of railway systems and alternative highway corridors were not analyzed with a view to minimizing environmental damage and urban sprawl.

The timeline on the process has been so contracted that it appears there has not been sufficient time to investigate such alternatives in what is called "alternatives to" phase of the process. It would seem that a legitimate environmental assessment should begin with a study of the impact of a highway on Niagara Escarpment wetlands, wildlife, and aquifers before a corridor can be selected. However, the structuring of the process by the MTO is clearly designed to block all alternatives to the proposed corridor.

These concerns were expressed in letters to Eves and Transportation Minister Norm Sterling, dated July 4. Sterling's response was received on Sept. 3. It states: "Although the recently completed Niagara Peninsula Transportation Needs Assessment Study has recommended a new mid-peninsula highway and a study area has been identified, no route has been selected."

The point is that the study-area corridor through Burlington and Flamborough is so narrow (one kilometre) that it is, in effect, a route.

The Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is in the process of developing guidelines for smart growth. The intent of these guidelines is to help the Ontario government plan its transportation networks, and examine its land use policies to prevent or minimize urban sprawl, gridlock and pollution. These guidelines are planned for publication in February. However, the MTO is surging ahead to put the plan for the mid-peninsula highway in place without any consideration of what is contained in these Smart Growth Guidelines.

Fortunately, the citizens of Halton and the surrounding area are sophisticated enough to understand the MTO's flagrant abuse of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law pertaining to due process. They also realize that there is recourse through the courts and they have the will and resources to encourage the Ontario government to follow the laws by which it is constrained.

Those living in Burlington know that a major highway so close to its core will have implications that have been succinctly described as "more smog, more noise, more people, more congestion." Worse than that is the fact that this plan would actually exacerbate the traffic gridlock on the Queen Elizabeth Highway -- but that's an analysis to be presented later.

To encourage the MTO to follow the spirit of due process, the COPE committee (Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment ) was formed in the Burlington-Flamborough area in late May and is quickly forming associations with other groups such as the Sierra Club and the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE). COPE is dedicated to preserving the Niagara Escarpment and opposes the arbitrary selection of the current corridors. We demand a legitimate process that is responsive to the concerns of those who value the escarpment and treasure Burlington's natural heritage.

To assist us in our fight to preserve the Escarpment in the face of arrogant governmental flaunting of due process, we need people to send e-mail messages to the MTO. E-mail address is: project_team@midpeninsulahighway.on.ca and the Web site is www.midpeninsulahighway.on.ca/

Also, we need people to show up in force at Councillor John Taylor's meeting at the Burlington Holiday Inn, 3063 South Service Road, tonight at 7 p.m. Taylor will provide an update on the progress in the Peer Assessment in which Burlington, Halton region and the city of Hamilton have engaged their own consultants to examine the MTO's Needs Assessment.

Brendan Kelly of Burlington is chair of COPE (Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment).

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The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
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