Lake Superior 'treasure' eyed
for gravel pit
By Martin Mittelstaedt
The Globe and Mail
Township of Michipicoten, Ont. - The north shore of Lake
Superior is one of Canada's scenic treasures. The lake
is so vast and the hills of ancient rock surrounding this
remote coast are so high that the shoreline easily could
be mistaken as lying along an ocean, rather than a lake
near the centre of North America.
But this idyllic area, promoted internationally by the
Ontario government as a major tourist draw, soon could
be the site of one of the country's largest gravel pits.
A U.S.-owned company, Superior Aggregates Ltd., is clearing
the site, about 220 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste.
Marie, near Wawa, for a quarry that will have more than
one million tonnes of material removed annually. The company
aims to supply growing U.S. demand for extremely hard
crushed stone used in building superhighways.
The project has prompted a storm of criticism among those
who fear it will ruin a special part of Lake Superior,
where verdant slopes decked with trees of the boreal forest
meet the pristine, cold waters of the world's largest
lake by surface area.
"To our minds, this is a national treasure, if not
a planetary treasure," said Mary Jo Cullen, who lives
near the proposed quarry and wants the project stopped.
"It's just wrong to blast it up and send it to the
The quarry would be just 75 metres from Lake Superior
at its closest, and will take a slice out of the hills
overlooking the lake during the several decades it likely
The site is centred in the midst of world-renowned nature
reserves, such as Pukaskwa National Park and Lake Superior
Provincial Park. Ontario recently recognized the area
for its tourism and ecological value by naming it a part
of the province's Great Lakes Heritage Coast.
The company said it will minimize the environmental impacts
that often go hand in hand with aggregate extraction,
such as noise from blasting and rock-crushing equipment
and clouds of dust. It said it hopes to hide the quarry
behind a buffer zone of trees and hillsides.
Because of government cost containment, Ontario's environmental
legislation controlling quarries, the Aggregate Resources
Act, will not apply to the project. To save money on quarry
inspectors' salaries, the government has not declared
the act in force on private land in sparsely populated
The company said it will run the quarry in the spirit
of the act and is eager to show critics that the operation
will not harm the environment or destroy the dramatic
visual landscapes provided by the lake.
"We're going to prove to them that their fears are
unfounded," said Harold Cheley, an aggregates specialist
at DST Consulting Engineers, which is developing the quarry
for Superior Aggregates.
Mr. Cheley said people living near quarries can grow
used to the blasting if they are notified in advance of
the explosions and if the blasting is conducted at regular
times. "After a while, it gets to be not too bad."
Critics of the quarry petitioned Environment Minister
Jim Wilson for an assessment. The government is mulling
over the request.
Superior Aggregates is owned by the Carlo Companies,
a Michigan-based construction conglomerate that bought
the approximately 400-hectare site for $725,000 (U.S.)
in 2000. The property, consisting mainly of hills overlooking
Lake Superior, had been used to ship ore mined near Wawa
to Sault Ste. Marie's steel mills.
Superior's shoreline is an attractive location for quarries
because the geological formations in this part of the
Canadian Shield contain some of the planet's oldest and
hardest rocks. These formations, while common in Canada,
are rare elsewhere in North America.
The material slated for quarrying at Michipicoten is
more than 2.5 billion years old, a testament to its durability.
The hardness that has allowed these rocks to resist billions
of years of weathering makes them highly valued when crushed
to pebble-sized stones for use in highways. The material
commands prices as much as 150 per cent higher than the
$10-a-tonne cost of other aggregates. The proximity of
the site to the lake means the gravel can go to markets
by ship rather than by more expensive trucks.
The quarry has supporters in this township of 3,500 people.
They said its jobs would be a welcome boost, counteracting
layoffs caused by the softwood-lumber dispute.
"Here is an opportunity for a business to come in,
and granted it may be only employing 18, 20 people, but
they're high-paid people," Michipicoten Reeve Doug
"If we refused it and said no, I mean that looks
like we're not looking for development . . . which we
are and need."
Mr. Cheley said that at the first community meeting he
held to explain the project, the first three people to
arrive did not want to protest against the quarry; they
demanded job applications.
At the most recent meeting, Mr. Cheley said he was told
by a resident: " 'The sound of unemployment is greater
than any that industry is going to make.' And I thought
she summed it up."
But economic arguments cut both ways. David Wells runs
a tourist-outfitting business, Naturally Superior Adventures,
for sea kayakers who roam the waters of the lake in search
of Superior's impressive scenery. He employs almost as
many people as the quarry will.
He predicted that the most valuable resource over the
next few decades will not be found in the export of rocks
but in delivering untouched wilderness to tourists who
want to see North America's remaining places that appear
much as they did before their settlement by Europeans.
"This sense of wilderness - they can't recreate
it in the States."
Mr. Wells said his customers are attracted by water so
pure that paddlers can dip a cup into the lake and drink
it, a night sky undiminished by light pollution, and wildlife,
such as Canada's dwindling herds of caribou that make
the area their home.
"We're not going to sell tourism if that's a quarry."