February 26, 2010

Three federal ministries must rethink environmental assessment of the four lane expansion of Highway 69 from Hwy 559 to Murdock River


Three federal ministries must rethink their federal environmental assessment screening of the four-lane expansion of Highway 69 from Highway 559 to Murdock River.

FEATURE | Roadbuilding

Highway 69 expansion hits an environmental roadblock


The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on a British Columbia mine has roadblocked the widening of Ontario’s Highway 69.

The legal wrangling is the latest setback and delay for the road expansion which has seen costs skyrocket.

The primary route from Toronto to Sudbury and beyond has long been in a state of disrepair and at the mercy of the rock formations lining the existing two-lane highway. The hard turns and thin lanes mixed with wild weather make it a dangerous highway to traverse. It’s also been a barrier to the ever-strengthening northern economy which cannot be competitive without infrastructure support and access to major markets like southern Ontario.

Though the highway project was originally subject to several environmental assessments, the Supreme Court of Canada January 21, 2010 decision in MiningWatch v. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans creates a problem.

In that case the court allowed an appeal to stop development of a B.C. mine because the environmental screening by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) did not take into consideration all aspects of the project as presented by the proponents.

Subsequently, Transport Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and DFO must rethink their federal environmental assessment screening of the four lane expansion of Highway 69 from Highway 559 to Murdock River.

“As a result of this decision, Transport Canada cancelled earlier environmental assessments and, in co-operation with DFO and INAC, commenced a screening of a 102-kilometre section of Highway 69,” said Paula Fairfax, Transport Canada spokesperson.

This new process could cause delays in the completion of the Highway 69 expansion. Gordan Rennie of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s (MTO) northeast region, says, “All remaining projects requires federal agencies to assess the whole length of a project when issuing environmental approvals, not just aspects of it,” such as watercourse crossings.”

Since the ruling, the MTO has been working with the federal government to obtain environmental approvals for projects that have not yet been constructed.

In addition to the current construction on a 13-km stretch south of Estaire, Rennie says that “the remaining sections are in various stages of detail design engineering and property acquisition. Once the federal approvals are received, we will move forward with additional construction contracts.”

Talks of widening the most direct route to northeastern Ontario began in the late 1970s and came to a head following a series of high-profile fatal car accidents.

The continual postponement of projects, however, was due to the high cost and difficulty of construction, says Rick Bartolucci, MPP for Sudbury and a founding members of C.R.A.S.H. 69 (Community Rallying against Substandard Highway 69)

“To give you an idea of the complexities,” he says, “A highway in Saskatchewan would cost about $1 million to $1.5 million per kilometre. Highway 69 has cost about $6.5 million per kilometre.”

It’s not just the rock cuts and location, he says, but also because of Ministry of Natural Resources requirements and negotiations with First Nations in the area; much of the land essential for construction is considered reserve and traditional territory and is also home to wildlife in need of protection.

For all its obstacles, the improved highway will be invaluable to the people of Northern Ontario.

“Studies indicate that there is great potential for industry if the destination is within three hours of driving,” says Bartolucci. “When we finish, Toronto will be only three hours away.”

Additionally, the construction has been a boon for many different trades in the area, with local contractors like: Terra North Construction and Engineering, Belanger Construction and Pioneer Construction, as well as Toronto-based Aecon.

“Since 2000, more than $674 million has been spent on construction to four-lane and to initiate other safety improvements on Highway 69 between Port Severn and Sudbury,” says Rennie.

“This has created more than 4,785 jobs. When completed, the total construction investment to four-lane Highway 69 between Port Severn and Sudbury will exceed $2.4 billion.

“We’re making good progress on the four-laning of Highway 69, and continue to work towards completion in 2017.”

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