The Ontario Election is still six months away, but the surprise candidate for most polarizing issue - likely to turn the political contest into an emotional cliffhanger similar to the one that won protection for Temagami years ago - has already stepped forward.
The development of a 6-billion-tonne gravel "mega-quarry," the second-largest in North America, in quiet farm and cottage country some 100 kilometres north of Toronto in Shelburne has set the stage for a faceoff between the Liberal government and a potent alliance of urban environmentalists and rural residents.
The go-ahead decision for the project now rests with the province, which lends the conflict between local citizens and absentee gravel pit owners all the elements of a David-and-Goliath Hollywood blockbuster, as well as raising a hornet's nest of political issues.
Last month, as I joined a throng of quarry protesters at Queen's Park setting off to walk to the site, I couldn't help thinking of the project as the kind of land grab that happens in corrupt foreign-controlled colonies.
Leading the anti side are a host of environmental and justice organizations including the David Suzuki Foundation (anxious about threatened species of birds and fish), the Council of Canadians (worried about future water scarcity), the National Farmers Union (concerned about disappearing prime agricultural lands) and local councillors of all political stripes (worried sick about the impact of noise and carcinogenic dust from continual dynamite explosions and heavy trucking).
An area that calls itself the Hills of the Headwaters, best known for Shelburne's country fiddling jamboree, does not greet the blast from this kind of rock-busting enterprise as an eco-or agritourism opportunity. To see the complex ways the issue could play out, consider that Conservative Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones is currently assisting those seeking more exploration of the quarry's consequences.
Leading the pro side is the Highland Companies, which presents itself on the web as an "investment vehicle for a group of private investors based in Canada and the United States." It wants to create "a diversified portfolio of sustainable local businesses," its website says.
Most references to the private investors lead back to the Boston-based Baupost Group, which manages assets for the 40 families that control it. The company is a hedge fund.
Although the anti-mega-quarry group numbers its predictable share of cottagers and weekend recreationists who cherish the area for its namesake hills, the issue is more "not in my back 40" than "not in my backyard," less about the tranquility of the countryside than the vitality of one of the most fertile veggie-growing areas in Ontario.
Dave Vander Zaag, who grows potatoes on a large farm across the road from the proposed dig, says he can't imagine how he'll be able to carry on. The area is blessed with rich soil and abundant water very close to the surface. The water table is really an underwater lake, he says, and since water runs downhill, his and all farms in the region would see their livelihood drained into a gravel pit blasted 60 metres below the water table, the literal equivalent of Niagara Falls in terms of sheer drop.
There are two competing sets of resources in this contested terrain: one for agriculture and one for aggregate. The bracing pre-election issue is which shall prevail.
In this conflict, agriculture and countryside are up against provincial laws that have caught them between the rock of aggregate and the hard place of obsolete legislation.
Since 1969, according to a review of Ontario laws by planner Mark Dorfman posted on the Gravel Watch Ontario website, the province has deemed that aggregate must be sourced "close to market," a stand-alone piece of stupidity that would be laughed out of court if applied to uranium, computers, steel or coal, let alone food.
Consequently, gravel can't be brought in from regions unsuitable for agriculture - approximately 95 per cent of Ontario's land mass - nor can recycled slag or crushed rock from mines and mills across the province be used.
But cheap gravel - about $8 a tonne - underpins the road, highway, pavement, concrete and sprawl development industries, stakeholders the Ministry of Natural Resources is charged with serving with barely a nod to citizen engagement.
As an incentive for the production of nearby gravel, negligible royalties, about a dime a tonne, come to the people of the province.
Worse, no reused, recycled or alternative aggregate - an industry rich in employment possibilities and environmental benefits - can gain a market share.
Although regional critics of the mega-quarry focus on the natural and cultural heritage that would disappear if the mine is established, Ontario's future is more at stake than its past.
In a world where crises of peak water will soon dwarf problems of peak gravel, and where plentiful water can secure a rich farm-based economy, it is folly to lose 600 million litres a day of clean water to seepage into a gravel pit.
Prices for rainfall-reliant staple grains are already climbing due to reduced yields as a consequence of global warming. Faced with a trend line of global dryness, it is folly to risk a prime area for potatoes and other nutritious vegetables that can substitute for grains and serve the mass urban markets of southern Ontario.
"Eat my dust" will never be the slogan of the aggregate industry, but it could well be the legacy of obsolete laws that have been revealed as a result of this dust-up.
Let's watch how the Liberals cope with what could be a lethal embarrassment.