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Environmental activists won a significant victory in the 25-year battle over the construction of a contentious garbage dump in Simcoe County Tuesday after the county council voted to impose a one-year moratorium on the development of Site 41.

The dump site, located 30 kilometres north of Barrie in Tiny Township, became an environmental cause-célèbre over the years as a broad coalition of natives, local farmers and activists rose up in protest. They argued that the contents of the dump could contaminate some of the world's purest drinking water, which runs through a massive aquifer below the site.

The Simcoe County Council yesterday voted 22-10 in favour of halting construction on the 20-hectare dump, which was being built on a former farm field. Over the last few months a protest camp of more than a dozen tents has been built across from the site and 18 protesters have been arrested. When the result of Tuesday's vote was announced hundreds of dump opponents in the public gallery and hundreds more waiting outside erupted in applause.

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It was a victory for the environmental movement, which has tried for years to block the dump. The moratorium sets the stage for another vote next month on whether to kill the project entirely, a vote opponents of Site 41 expect to win based on Tuesday's broad council support.

Maude Barlow, the UN's senior adviser on water issues and president of the Council of Canadians, was one of the most vocal critics of Site 41 and called Tuesday's victory a turning point in the movement to protect water.

"Because this was such an intense fight being watched all over the country, I think you're going to see the same debate start happening everywhere. The shift is going to be from councillors searching for the least contentious place to put a dump to saying how can we have no more dump sites? How can we protect the water?" Ms. Barlow said.

Simcoe County Warden Tony Guergis, who had taken much of the flak for supporting the dump site, is now resigned to seeing the project halted forever. He said he can't understand how a site that was approved by the provincial Ministry of the Environment became so contentious.

"It's clear we can't make decisions locally on such difficult things as waste management," Mr. Guergis said. "My position is let's not move forward with the site. Let's get out of the waste-management business and clearly indicate to the province that this should not be dealt with at this level."

He said he doubts that any further environmental study would ease the concerns of activists opposed to seeing the dump in the area. "This has been the most studied site in Ontario. It has all its approvals," Mr. Guergis said.

"To get public opinion on our side to build this landfill I think is going to be a very difficult thing based on the direction that I think people want."

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The site was originally chosen in the mid-1980s and then rejected by an environmental assessment in 1989. It was approved only after an unusual order-in-council by the Liberal government of former premier David Peterson. Subsequent environmental reviews have declared the site safe, but that assessment is hotly contested by opponents.

Peggy Breckenridge, the mayor of Tiny Township and one of the leading opponents of the dump, said Tuesday's vote is the beginning of the end for Site 41.

"Unless they can prove it's safe, it will be [dead]" Ms. Breckenridge said.

The moratorium will mean no construction can take place before the 2011 construction season, which will be after municipal elections slated for 2010. It's expected that water issues will play an important role in those races. Many councillors said yesterday they want to explore how to incinerate their municipal waste rather than put it in landfills.

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Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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