By Mike Baker
An incident last Wednesday, Dec. 2 that some area residents believed could have been an earthquake or home explosion turned out to be a “blast gone wrong” at the Thomas Contracting Quarry, located on North Shore Road near Highway 35 in Algonquin Highlands.
Shortly before 2 p.m. dozens of people, some as far away as Minden and Haliburton Village, reported experiencing a loud blast and subsequent rumbling. While there was much immediate speculation online about what could have caused the issue, Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt moved quickly to allay the public’s fears.
“As everything shimmied and shook on my desk at home, I blurted out things I won’t put on this page. I wondered if it was an earthquake or rock blast; and after making a few quick calls I can confirm the blast occurred in the aggregate pit on North Shore Road,” Moffatt posted on her political Facebook page.
While the pit is owned by Thomas Contracting, they weren’t the ones responsible for last week’s blast. According to Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), blasting operations at the site have been contracted out to Fowler Construction, who in turn subcontracted the blasting work to Austin Powder Ltd.
The incident was reported to both the MECP and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry on Wednesday.
“The ministry is working to determine the cause of the blasting noise limit exceedance, any potential violation and address public concerns. Currently, it is too early to determine the results of the ministry’s review and assessment of the incident,” Wheeler informed the Times.
Wheeler confirmed the MECP received numerous complaints from the public following the incident.
A post on a local community page on Facebook discussing the blast has so far garnered 104 responses. Many local residents are using it as a platform to share their experiences in the aftermath of the explosion.
“It was pretty crazy how the house rumbled and the trees shook for a while afterwards,” noted Joleen Thomas.
Andrea Coysh reported hearing the blast at her home just east of Minden, on County Road 21, approximately 20 kilometres away from the blast site. Emmy Lester, who lives in nearby Ingoldsby, said she too heard the explosion.
Susan Deborah works in Minden, and she said the blast “reverberated in the windows of our office building”.
“Knew it was a blast, but unbelievable it was that far away,” Deborah noted.
Living in the vicinity of the Thomas Contracting Quarry, Bert Kennedy is no stranger to the usual noises that emanate from the site. Last Wednesday’s blast was anything but usual, Kennedy claimed.
“We live quite close to the pit where the blast took place and our house vibrated and shook,” Kennedy wrote. “I was in my wood shop and thought a big tree was coming through the roof. Neighbours report things like structure damage, window and concrete cracks.”
Some residents wondered if there was a connection between the 2 p.m. blast and an earlier sighting of a falling meteor, which came into view at around noon and could be seen across much of southern Ontario, but that was quickly chalked up as being a coincidence.
The MECP is currently working with both Fowler Construction and Austin Powder Ltd. to ensure the companies take appropriate action to address the public’s concerns and ensure similar incidents do not occur at the site in the future. Wheeler noted the organizations will be required to meet with individuals who claim the blast damaged their property.
“We are requiring that the company conduct inspections of the reported damage to determine what steps are necessary to restore the property. The ministry will monitor the progress of these inspections and ensure that the parties involved take appropriate action,” Wheeler stated.
John McBride, director of operations with Fowler Construction, informed the Times that he has already met with representatives from Austin Powder Ltd. in an attempt to find what, exactly, occurred last week. While he acknowledged there was an exceedance on the acceptable noise level of the blast, as regulated by the ministry, the two companies were still working to determine its cause.
“We are collecting data from the subcontractor. We monitor for noise and vibrations on every blast, so we have to look at the seismograph readings and see where they are. We photograph and film it all too, so we can look at that frame by frame to determine, number one, what happened, and then number two, what can we do to make sure this never happens again,” McBride said. “There are rules and regulations that we have to abide by and we take that very seriously. We do enough of this stuff that we have to fit within those guidelines.”
McBride said interviews with the blasters on site had already been conducted, and the two companies were now working to understand what went wrong.
“We have to be able to explain this to the ministry, but we also have to be able to explain this to the public too. That’s my concern right now,” McBride said. “This sort of thing just cannot happen. We have to stay within the standards, period.”