Skeleton Lake Under Siege

Published July 1, 2018

If you were to take a drive around some of the beautiful scenic hills of Muskoka, you might come across one of the most sought after and desired lakes in this region. Known to be one of the clearest and deepest lakes in Muskoka, Skeleton Lake is famous for its dramatic landscapes and rugged natural beauty.

Located in the municipalities of Huntsville and Muskoka Lakes about seventeen kilometres west of Huntsville, it is the only Muskoka Lake which is Mercury free.  This is due to its creation before the last glacier, which makes it older than the human race. A meteorite struck the Earth and left a very deep hole in the Earth’s crust which not only filled with water but created a protective limestone shell. Mercury seeps into all of our lakes from the Earth’s crust, but not into Skeleton Lake.  The limestone filters the water and keeps the Mercury out. This is an ANSI designated lake, part of the Muskoka region that is now internationally known for its pristine air and water and many of the people living near and around its shores, would like to keep it this way.

The Primary economic engine for Muskoka is the influx of tourists during the summer months. The economic prosperity is connected to this important influx. Visitors come for the tranquility of outdoor living, clean air and water. Summers draw thousands of cottage owners, tourists and children to the many camps in the area. The children are introduced to a rural and natural setting and taught to respect this environment, especially the woodlands and its little creatures. But despite its peaceful setting and idyllic location, a fear is permeating among residents of this area that their peaceful way of life may soon be shattered.

An application has been submitted to open and operate a gravel pit and stone quarry 1.7 km north of Skeleton Lake. The proposed area of 130 acres has some Crown Land and Protected Wetlands to the north and the other three sides are private property where people have lived for years despite it being described as ‘uninhabited land’ in the quarry application. The rural home owners, cottage owners and visitors who will live within a short distance from the quarry do not feel that the land is uninhabited.

The granite aggregate which is sought will be open pit mined, blasted and crushed before transported out of the area.  The proposed pit is to operate from May until November, 7 days a week starting at 6:00 am until 11:00 pm with an open ended clause stating, earlier to later if needed. The proposal is to remove up to 200,000 tons per summer and put up to 100 aggregate hauling vehicles a day on the road.

The applicant says that the aggregate is needed to satisfy a local demand but residents in the area, question that.  Current quarries both east and west of the proposed quarry have enough aggregate to satisfy area needs for over 100 years.

Despite this, the applicants have already excavated roads with 20 metre cutbacks over Crown Land and protected wetlands and have dammed water courses to re-direct watersheds. The crushers will require 250,000 litres of water per day to wash the dust from the crusher and eliminate the largest particles of silicon dust, while the very fine particles will be airborne for months, carried by the wind over thousands of people.

In June 2017, the Muskoka Lakes Council, with 200 plus residents in attendance, unanimously voted NO to the application and a month later, the Huntsville Council endorsed the Muskoka council and voted NO as well. In February 2018, the applicant took the application to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in an attempt to overturn the Councils decisions.

If the OMB rules in favour of the quarry the residents will lose on several fronts.  The proposed pit is to be allowed to excavate well below the water table. The concern is that the blasting will send vibrations through the dense granite under the lake shattering the brittle limestone shell.  This will let the Mercury from the Earth’s crust into the lake from below. The blasting and subsequent crushing will also release toxic silicon dust into the atmosphere. This dust contrary to the proposed studies will not be filtered out by a few metres of bush around the pit. Trucks carrying the aggregate and silicon dust will spread it over 14 km to Hwy 11 and over 34 km for Hwy 400. The watering from the crushing process will remove the larger particles which will be dewatered into a local creek and pumped towards Skeleton Lake. The water containing Mercury, Arsenic and Phosphorous which was sealed in the Granite will be released into the lake. The winds which blow from the northwest will carry more of the same toxicity to settle in the lake, over the population of Muskoka and beyond for months. The water from Skeleton Lake, which was pure, will now carry Mercury and other heavy metals to increase the contamination downstream, raising the level of pollutants in Lake Rosseau, Lake Joseph, and accumulating in Lake Muskoka. The process of throwing your waste downstream for others to deal with, was stopped by municipalities more than half a century ago. Why would anyone want to bring this back again?

In conclusion, it seems that there are many unanswered questions as to why the need to open another quarry when there are several in the area. Of specific concern is the future of the clear, uncontaminated water of Skeleton Lake. For many decades people have enjoyed the peace, outdoor fun and a little step back in time at this oasis nestled among the Muskoka Hills. We will be left to wonder, after the OMB hearing, will the waters of Skeleton Lake continue to be preserved in pristine condition for future generations to enjoy or will the modern sounds of progress shatter the quiet solitude of this ancient wonder.

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