Toronto conservation officials are investigating damage to a protected wetland where Doug Ford’s government once stripped away environmental oversight to fast-track a proposed warehouse, The Narwhal has learned.

The Lower Duffins Creek wetland has the status of “provincially significant,” which means experts have deemed it so valuable it should be protected from development. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority told The Narwhal Friday that someone had cleared and tilled about 90 per cent of the wetland.

Amazon had previously been eyeing the site as a possible location for a new warehouse but ultimately pulled out in 2021 amid public opposition. The landowner and project developer, Triple Group, later promised not to harm the wetland. 

The conservation authority’s chief operating and financial officer, Michael Tolensky, confirmed it has asked that work on the “sensitive environmental feature” stop immediately. 

“[The conservation authority] is doing everything within our legislative ability to address this issue and our enforcement officers are continuing to monitor the property and investigate the matter,” Tolensky said in a written statement.

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The conservation authority did not specify when the alleged damage occurred or when it started investigating.

David White of Triple Group told The Narwhal in an email that the land the wetland is on was “being prepped for farming,” which he said has happened on the lot for a long time. 

“We respected the [Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s] recommendations and the farmers ceased any productive use of the land immediately,” White said in an email. 

White did not immediately answer questions asking him to identify the farmers or explain whether they were authorized by Triple Group.

Tolensky said the conservation authority is still investigating and cannot comment on who was doing the work on the wetland. 

The damage to the wetland comes as the Ontario government has announced sweeping changes to environmental rules experts say could result in provincially significant wetlands like the one near Durham Live being opened up for development, among other things. On Friday, the government also unveiled plans to remove Greenbelt land to build homes, breaking a promise to leave the protected area intact. The changes haven’t yet been approved.

Steve Clark
Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has come under fire for years over his use of minister’s zoning orders. He used one to fast-track development on the Lower Duffins Creek wetland site, but later revised it to exclude the protected wetland. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr

Rebecca Rooney, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who researches wetland ecology, said the damage to the wetland is “heartbreaking,” and she’s worried the province’s proposed changes signal that the destruction of the wetland would be OK. 

“Soon there could be a legal pathway for this developer to proceed despite much public protest,” she said.

“The ministry is not aware of wetland destruction within TRCA jurisdiction,” Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said in an email.

The battle over the Duffins Creek provincially significant wetland started in 2020, when the Doug Ford government issued a special land zoning order — a minister’s zoning order, or MZO — for the site. The unappealable order sped up the process to rezone the land for development, as part of a larger project called Durham Live. The controversial move became a flashpoint for public opposition to the province’s environmental policies. 

Ontario government changed rules to enable Durham Live, but backed off in 2021

The Lower Duffins Creek wetland is a part of a complex of marshes and swamps connected to the larger Duffins Creek waterway, which winds by the communities of Pickering and Ajax on its way to drain into Lake Ontario. The wetland is located just south of Highway 401. 

From the road, it looks like a cluster of brush, full of willow trees, silver maples and cattails. But the wetland is also incredibly important. It’s located in an area with a history of flooding, something wetlands play a vital role in naturally mitigating. They act like a sponge when heavy rains fall and snow melts, slowing down rising waters. That’s especially crucial amid the climate crisis, which is expected to make floods in Ontario happen more often and more intensely. Wetlands also filter water and sequester carbon, an important role as countries around the world race to slash carbon emissions.

Back when the warehouse project was still on the table, the Triple Group and the City of Pickering argued the wetland had already been degraded by the development around it, and didn’t have much value left. Wetland experts disagreed.

“Urban wetlands may look dirty and polluted and degraded, they may have invasive species in them, but they’re still storing carbon,” Rooney said. 

“They’re still protecting your house from flooding. They’re still purifying the water and we need them to do that. That’s actually saving us a ton of money as taxpayers because otherwise we’d have to replace those services with built infrastructure, which is costly to run and prone to like failure.”

A field of cattails with a fence running through it
The Lower D/uffins Creek wetland is supposed to be protected from development, but the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority says most of it has been damaged. Though it looks unassuming, the wetland plays an important role in mitigating floods and sequestering carbon. Photo: Philip Jessup

As months wore on, the province changed more rules to enable construction over the wetland to go ahead, compelling the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to issue a permit for it and tweaking laws to head off a lawsuit from environmentalists. At the same time, citizens ramped up their efforts to oppose it. 

In March 2021, as the clash reached a fever pitch and groundbreaking on the site was imminent, Amazon announced that it had been the proposed user of the warehouse to be built at the site — but it was no longer interested. After that, the plan unravelled: the Ford government revoked the portion of the zoning order that applied to the wetland, barring it from development. And Triple Group announced a “voluntary promise, through a legally enforceable undertaking, not to interfere with, alter or remove the provincially significant wetland on its Pickering property,” though the larger Durham Live development, a casino and entertainment complex, is still going ahead. 

“The Duffins Creek [provincially significant wetland] was a lightning rod in a sense … a mobilizing and a motivating force,” Rooney said. “It’s more of a kick in the teeth now to see it being destroyed despite all of that effort to protect it and to conserve it and to honor it.”

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark and Premier Doug Ford look out at a crowd at an event
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, left, announced their latest plan to tackle the housing crisis at a Toronto Region Board of Trade event on Oct. 25, 2022. Parts of the plan could diminish protections for wetlands. Photo: Doug Ford / Twitter

The maximum penalty for disrupting the wetland is $10,000, which could come with a court order to remediate the damage. 

Triple Group was founded by the late Greek-Canadian billionaire Andreas Apostolopoulos, whose son, Steve, lists himself on LinkedIn as a board member at the company. The family has donated at least $19,000 to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives since 2018. 

Phil Pothen of the non-profit Environmental Defence said people who might profit from the destruction of wetlands “smell blood in the water” as the province is poised to roll back protections for them. 

“Look what’s been done to the Duffins Creek wetland, and look and imagine this happening with impunity in your favourite natural space,” Pothen said.

“That’s where we’re headed.”

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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