From rocky relations to common ground

New SERA standards guide sourcing of aggregates
Thursday, January 19, 2012
By Gavin Day & Barbara Carss

Several certification programs help guide a greener approach to construction and the resulting footprint of new buildings but, until recently, one key component was missing.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for New Construction (LEED NC) looks generally at all materials and jobsite practices, while widely embraced programs like the Forestry Stewardship Council, EcoLogo, Greenguard and WaterSense certify environmentally preferable building products and furnishings.

Meanwhile, the actual foundation and footings of any construction project have been largely overlooked. Indeed, new buildings in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) get what amounts to a default LEED credit for locally sourced materials because they almost invariably incorporate aggregates mined from the Niagara Escarpment – a UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture) designated biosphere reserve.

A new voluntary standard known as Socially and Environmentally Responsible Aggregate, or SERA, addresses that gap. Proponents commend the program as a guide to better practices for extraction operations and rehabilitation of sites. It will also enable developers of green projects to specify certified aggregates and/or help them to identify the source of the aggregates they use.

“If you’re trying to do a green development project and you’re trying to source green material, as it is right now, you have no option on the aggregate. You get whatever aggregate comes to you,” says Rodney Wilts, a partner with the design and development consulting firm, BuildGreen Solutions.

Earlier this year, BuildGreen Solutions was retained as an independent third party consultant to conduct a critical review of proposed SERA standards, which are based on seven principles and a number of associated core requirements that outline actions applicants for certification must take to comply with the principles.

Comprehensively, it creates a best practices standard for aggregate extraction, which would be certified through a third party audit.

“In conducting our online audit of existing aggregate standards, it became clear there existed no English language certification system for aggregate extraction that compares with the draft SERA standards,” Wilts stated when the BuildGreen review was released last June. “We reviewed all international aggregate standards we could find across fifteen criteria and, in all but two, SERA was equal to or better than the rest.”

Surmounting adversarial process
SERA’s founding board of directors includes representation from environmental groups, the development industry, and government and academia but the motivating push comes largely from the aggregate industry itself. Notably, Holcim Canada Inc., which owns and operates extraction operations in Ontario and Quebec, teamed with what might seem to be an unlikely collaborator, Environmental Defence, to initiate the process.

Yet, after years on opposing sides of protracted environmental hearings around the development and expansion of quarries, both parties were ready to find some common ground away from the winner takes all stakes that have evolved from Ontario’s regulatory approach to problem solving.

“For years, the licensing of aggregate operations in Ontario has been characterized by a process that has been lengthy, expensive and highly contentious,” says Bill Galloway, senior vice-president with Holcim Canada. “SERA certification is an innovative approach that will help ease years of conflict and satisfy public demand for responsibly sourced construction materials, beginning with aggregates.”

SERA’s proposed principles emphasize the importance of environmental stewardship and protecting water resources, the need for community consultation and, particularly, First Nations rights and culture, and the desirability of conservation and maximization of recycled content in place of newly mined resources. However, on the urban development side of the equation, one of the principles recognizes the importance of the industry to communities and workers.

“What SERA is designed to do is look at the phases of aggregate extraction right from the siting of a new location or an expansion,” explains Galloway. “That’s looking at the day-to-day operations, the progressive rehab as you go through it, and then looking at the final land use after a mine closure plan.”

Certification to complement LEED
Pending updated versions of LEED are also expected to revise the criteria relating to locally sourced materials to better acknowledge all the environmental factors involved.

Some aggregate extractors in jurisdictions outside Ontario have already voluntarily adopted SERA – suggesting that it has the makings of a more widely applied standard.

Admittedly, other issues relating to aggregates have come more prominently to the forefront with growing protests against a proposed quarry development in Melancthon, Ont., a township north of the GTA. However, proponents of SERA see it as tool for balancing interests.

“It doesn’t mean the Niagara Escarpment would be off-limits but certain areas in the Niagara Escarpment would be,” says Galloway. “It would also look after the community needs and the overall environment needs and basically satisfy the need for aggregates to fuel the growth in the economy.”

Gavin Day is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.

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