Digging for the truth

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The lesson was brutal. “Do you know,” I was asked, “what a gold mine listed on the Vancouver Stock Exchange actually is?”

Er, I guess not.

“A hole in the ground with a liar standing over it.”

Twenty-five years later, that only slightly exaggerated observation often comes back to me when I hear the over-the-top hard sell with which mining companies invariably like to promote their projects.

At the time, I was a naïve 21-year-old tasked by my mother with finding out what, if anything, were worth all the obscure mining stocks my recently deceased dad had purchased over the years on the fevered advice of various brokers hawking sure-fire tips. I still appreciate the blunt learning moment provided by a stockbroker friend of a friend.

Despite all the dream-weaving and sure-thing-can’t-miss promises my old man must have heard over the phone, the answer I received to my question was a big, fat zero. Nada. Zilch. Literally not worth the paper in the stack of stock certificates I had smugly slapped on the stockbroker’s desk before being so abruptly disabused of my assumptions.

For different reasons, this moment came back to me when I read about the gigantic open-pit quarry being pushed by the Canadian subsidiary of a giant U.S. hedge fund – the $24 billion, Boston-based, Baupost group – in rural Ontario. In this case, there will no doubt be huge returns for the shareholders should it be approved, but the money-grubbing lies that will have made it possible are familiar.

This is what fascinates me: the sell. How do you get people to accept something they should know will be bad for them while gaining untold riches for the liars?

Five years ago, using a front called Headwater Farms, the Baupost group quietly assembled more than 8,500 acres of rich farmland near the community of Shelburne, Ontario. The land included big potato farms, overnight turning the shell company into Ontario’s biggest potato producer. But, as it turns out, it’s not spuds this company intends to sell with its property, but stones. Gravel, to be precise.

After completing its purchasing campaign, the company bulldozed 30 farmhouses, many of them more than a century old, as well as farm storage and processing buildings, in this region known as the Dufferin Highlands.

Then, last year, not so subtly changing its name to the Scots-friendly “Highland Companies,” the smooth-talking PR specialist hired by the Boston moneymen suddenly announced the firm needed to diversify by creating the world’s largest gravel pit. Though not in so many words.

More than 2,300 acres of Canada’s richest farmland, he declared, would be carved out into a humongous, 60-metre-deep quarry to produce what the company elegantly terms “Amabel dolostone.” It’s what the rest of us know as gravel, after it is excavated from the limestone bedrock and crushed up in a massive industrial operation.

That’s a pretty big hole in the ground. And what, do you recall, accompanies a hole in the ground? That’s right.

It may not be gold in this case, but there will be plenty of silver to justify the massive fib that underlies the metamorphosis of Headwater Farms, potato producer, to Highland Companies, purveyor of environmental hell.

Accordingly, some pretty high-powered communications are going into green washing this operation as an environmental gain. If you watch the cartoon-ish video on the company’s website, you might almost swallow the bait. More green space, more trees, more potatoes even.

Then I remembered the lesson I learned a quarter-century ago. If they aren’t straight up with you from the start, there’s a reason for hiding the truth. A big hole in the corporate fairytale is what will happen to the water that is filtered into absolute purity by the limestone shield the company will be grinding into gravel.

The company says it will pump 600 million litres of water a day from the quarry back into the regional watershed. To put it in perspective, that’s the volume of water used by 2.7 million Ontario residents each day. Even if we believe the company position that it has the technology to accomplish this feat, critics point out that it would take three days of storage to settle the sediment that would be stirred up in the water by the quarrying operations, thereby tripling the amount of water the company would have to handle on a daily basis to 1.8 billion litres to prevent the massive quarries (since there would be several) from becoming instant blue areas on regional maps.

It’s a lot of water to swallow. For their part, the experts in Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment don’t believe the hype. According to a story in the Toronto Star last week, a ministry report observed that the company’s analysis “failed to demonstrate a three-dimensional understanding of the geology, hydrogeology and hydrology of the site.”

That’s more than a bit troubling for those who live – and drink – in the region. But it’s consistent with the story.

While it might not be an immediate concern for the folks of Eeyou Istchee, we all know there is not going to be a shortage of holes in the ground proposed in Cree territory over the next several years. So we should also ensure that we verify all the grandiose promises and soothing statements of those who stand over – and stand to profit from – those holes.

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