Ontario Study Debunks Water Worries
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by Tina Grady Barbaccia, News and Digital Editor
In a win for the aggregates industry, a study has found that aggregate extraction operations have no adverse effect on the water quality conditions in municipal drinking water supplies.
According to the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (OSSGA), the report, Ontario Case Studies — Water Supply and Aggregate Extraction, makes this “abundantly clear.” The data from all municipal water supplies near the case study sites indicate no adverse impact from nearby aggregate operations. These data back up the results obtained from another study on water filtration — The Effect of Aggregate Extraction of Groundwater Quality, which also found that aggregate operations are unlikely to pose any significant threats to groundwater, according to OSSGA.
Ontario, Canada-based OSSGA commissioned the third-party study as a follow-up to a Ministry of Natural Resources review, which identified varying impacts on hydrogeologic and hydrologic systems in areas where aggregate activities were taking place, as well as recommending case studies of aggregate sites where extraction and processing occurred in the vicinity of drinking water supplies.
The study focused on determining “significant drinking water quality threats” that could be posed by aggregate extraction operations and associated activities as determined by the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s (MOE) Source Water Protection regulations in accordance with the Clean Water Act of 2006.
To determine the possible effects of aggregate operations on public water quality and quantity, the major objectives for the study were to identify and select aggregate site locations in Ontario where aggregate operations are, or have been, operating in close proximity to municipal water supplies; to review available evidence related to whether water supplies have been depleted or contaminated by aggregate activities; and to develop case studies summarizing water quality and quantity impacts as the result of activities associated with aggregate extraction operations.
“Our industry follows a myriad of rules and regulations to make sure our operations have no negative effects on municipal water supply systems,” explains Greg Dennis, director of communications for OSSGA. “But to make doubly sure, we commissioned this study…to give everyone their deserved peace of mind.”
The study determined that less than 1 percent of aggregate operations in Ontario lie within the two-year time of travel Wellhead Protection Area (WHPA) for a municipal water well. This is significant, Dennis says, because aggregate producers need to prove that they are able to run their operations without negatively affecting nearby water supplies.
“For the industry, the significant finding of these studies will support license applications and help counter community concerns about compatibility issues,” Dennis tells Aggregates Manager.
It may also help the “Not in My Backyard (NIMBY)” phenomenon that citizens often have with aggregate producers. Dennis says people, of course, “have the right to good, clean drinking water.” As operators with families themselves, he explains, producers and staff understand this, expect the same privilege, and take environmental issues seriously, while carefully conducting business as outlined in provincial laws and regulations. That being noted, Dennis says OSSGA is “pleased that these studies and their scientific findings give municipalities and residents reassurance about the presence of pits operations near their water supplies.”
Dennis says it’s easy to understand why citizens would be “quite concerned” about water supplies, whether they are for drinking water, groundwater, lakes, or wetlands. Understanding that perception — though not always factual — is important, he says, “because [the perceptions] are real to them.” This makes their concerns legitimate, he says, therefore, they need to be addressed.
Although the practice of extracting aggregates is considered low-risk land use in terms of groundwater contamination, there is growing concern about the possible impact of aggregate extraction on the long-term vulnerability of underlying aquifers to contamination, according to the executive summary of The Effect of Aggregate Extraction on Groundwater Quality. According to the summary, this is based on the perception that the removal of aggregate — and its associated contaminant filtration capacity — poses a significant threat to groundwater quality.
The initiation of source water protection under Ontario’s Clean Water Act in 2006 brought renewed attention to the compatibility of various land uses with public drinking water supplies, according to Dennis. That same year, the MNR published a worldwide review of literature containing national and global evidence that aggregate operations don’t compromise water supplies.
“The results were good news for our industry,” Dennis says. “The MNR then asked for scientific studies to confirm those results. These studies did just that.”
Studies such as these are obviously a “great service for aggregate operators everywhere,” he says, adding that it’s important to share the findings. “Our responsibility as good neighbors and fellow citizens is to do as much as we can to help them understand that our existence and theirs is quite compatible,” Dennis continues. “One study will rarely be enough to appease a concerned community. Two might not be, either. But when we can pile study after study on a table at a public meeting, the majority of those residents should receive some peace of mind about how aggregate operations will not affect their families.”
When asked for OSSGA member comments on what the study’s findings mean for their operations, Dennis noted that OSSGA members “were very pleased” to hear the summary of the reports. However, because only an executive summary of the report was released on Nov. 9 — the full report will be formally released at an unspecified later date — Dennis said it’s not appropriate for members to comment on how they will use the findings going forward.
Methodology and Case Study Site Collection
The case studies presented in the report were based on a desktop data collection, the review and analysis of information and data made available by municipal agencies, regulatory sources, and aggregate sites. Two questionnaire surveys were conducted to collect site-specific information and data relevant to the 21 land-use activities by the Ministry of the Environment’s Clean Water Act, 2006, as Drinking Water Threats for Source Water Protection. Of the 5,951 aggregate sites recorded in Ontario, only 57 were located in vulnerable well-head protection areas.
The final five case studies selected for the report were selected based on the vulnerability of municipal wells and proximity to municipal wells. Sites were ranked through the developed priority criteria.
The final five case studies selected for the report were based on the developed screening criteria, municipal data, and feedback from the aggregate producer.
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