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Dire Prospects

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Issue: 67 Section: Environment Geography: Quebec Québec, Sept-Iles Topics: Mining, uranium

March 11, 2010

Dire Prospects

Expanding uranium exploration sparks concern, protests in Quebec

by Chris Scott

Some 500 people participate in a March 2009 demonstration against uranium exploration on Lake Kachiwiss in northern Quebec. Photo: Olivier Noël

SEPT-ILES, QC—There is a region in northeastern Quebec that is renowned as a moose hunter's paradise: a country of blackflies, where outcroppings of billion-year-old granite poke through the veneer of trees and pristine rivers originating in the Labrador highlands tumble over escarpments to empty into the widening St. Lawrence. In small, blue-collar urban centres such as Port-Cartier and Sept-Iles, it seems locals spend every free moment on the land. Ski-Doo travel is a preferred recreational activity in winter and on the shores of mountain-ringed Lake Kachiwiss, located 15km from downtown Sept-Iles, families on day trips stop to drink hot tea from thermoses.

But despite, or perhaps in light of, this popularity, Lake Kachiwiss has also become known as a point of interest for reasons other than Ski-Doo expeditions.

A Quebec government map outlining uranium exploration on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence river. The number of claims for exploration, marked in red, has shot up in recent years. Photo: Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources

It is here that Vancouver-based mineral prospecting company Terra Ventures has been drilling the granite bedrock of the Saint Lawrence North Shore for uranium since 2008. The procedure includes boring a 300-metre hole into the ground at a location previously identified by aerial survey as having uranium potential. The contents of each hole are then hauled to the surface and cut laterally into two hemispheres, the way one would slice a carrot. One hemisphere from each core sample—which are typically radioactive—is trucked to a lab, while the other half is left on site for classification.

According to Sept-Iles residents, the prospecting site is not fenced in, the drill holes, as of June last year, were uncapped, and the company has neglected to post signs to warn the population about potential radioactivity. The core samples are stored on open-air racks, exposed to the elements.

Marc Fafard, a logger and local activist, describes the result of leaving such unusual objects unattended, and essentially unmarked, in a frequented area.

“You've got these lovely core samples, soft, beautiful as fossils, nice to touch,” he explains. Samples "were showing up in people's living rooms”.

Fafard, who was a recent mayoral candidate, helped found the citizens' group Sept-Iles sans uranium (Sept-Iles without uranium; SISUR) after reading about the prospecting activity in the news. According to Fafard, this anecdote of souvenir hunting gone badly wrong illustrates the degree to which the initial flurry of uranium prospecting caught Sept-Iles residents by surprise.

“Most folks don't know what radioactivity is,” he says. “We're asking for a moratorium while we inform people.”

Terra Ventures representatives did not respond to interview requests before deadline.

One of SISUR's first goals was to purchase a Geiger counter and visit a majority of the uranium prospecting sites in the North Shore region. But it turned out to be a tall order. Since 2005, a plethora of companies have obtained permits from the Quebec government to drill in approximately 20 locations, and have extracted up to 250 core samples per site along an axis extending 800km from Tadoussac through Sept-Iles to the eastern terminus of Highway 138 at Natashquan.

Over the same period, the number of active permits across the province has jumped from four to 86. Starting in 2005, a buzz of speculation driven by the mining industry and the US government's efforts to promote nuclear reactors as a “carbon neutral” and “clean” energy source propelled uranium prices to record highs. The metal's value rose from around $10US a pound, to peak at close to $140 in 2007, before settling to $42 in February this year.

Saskatchewan is currently the only jurisdiction in Canada to operate commercial uranium mines, supplying 22 per cent of the world market from its underground, seamed deposits. But with prices high, the extraction of far lower-density uranium deposits contained in the granite of the Canadian Shield, which have been known since the 1970s, suddenly appear financially viable. In addition to Quebec, active prospecting is now also underway in Labrador and Nunavut.

This trend can pit a provincial or territorial government, eager for royalties or investment, against remote communities that will have to live with the environmental consequences in their backyard. In January 2009, the Sept-Iles City Council responded to popular pressure and passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on uranium prospecting. But even though the Lake Kachiwiss site is located within Sept-Iles city limits, the resolution carries no legal weight because it is the Ministry of Natural Resources in Quebec City that holds exclusive authority to issue or regulate permits.

Mining industry representatives point out prospecting is not the same as mining, and that typically only a fraction of prospect sites will turn into a commercial venture. But whistleblowers like Fafard counter that the amount of radioactive material extracted from prospect sites across Quebec cumulatively equals the output of a small commercial mine.

Environmental concerns related to the prospecting and potential mining of uranium tend to centre on the dispersal of radioactive residues into the air and water. The Lake Kachiwiss site lies just three kilometres from the banks of one of the North Shore's most important salmon streams. Also, Lake Kachiwiss has been shown to flow into Rapid Lake, which provides drinking water to Sept-Iles. Activists fear the radioactive contaminants will follow these main watercourses and accumulate in the Gulf of St. Lawrence posing unacceptable, long-term, cancer-related health risks to residents of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

Moreover, the low density of most deposits in Eastern Canada means commercial mining would likely include an open-pit operation, with vast quantities of granite crystal being ground up to free trace amounts of uranium. The pulverized stone, containing unrecovered uranium and derived substances would remain on site.

Marc Fafard sums up the fears of many. “We're afraid we'll be held hostage to mountains of radioactive residue that we'll have to manage ourselves once the companies are gone,” he says.

Many observers of the mining industry point to the policy of “free entry” as an obstacle to democratic sovereignty in resource-related issues. Devised in the 19th century, and still in force in every Canadian province except Alberta, free entry grants prospectors unlimited access to the minerals beneath the surface in any part of a province or jurisdiction not previously claimed for mining purposes. This means the rights of mining firms trump other interests, including the proprietary rights of individuals or municipalities, which apply only from the ground up. Granting an exploitation permit is also expected to be “non-discretionary,” that is, based only on technical factors, unrelated to issues of social acceptability.

“It becomes more and more difficult to stop [mining companies] as you let the door open,” says activist Ugo Lapointe on the question of whether a company that already has a permit to prospect for uranium could be denied a mining licence. “It may not be impossible, but we know of no case where that has happened.”

Lapointe is a spokesperson for the provincial watchdog group Pour que le Quebec ait meilleure mine (a play on words, but literally, "For a Quebec with Better Mines") which is critical of the cozy relationship said to exist between the Quebec government and the mining industry. Unlike the royalty regime applied to forestry, where a “stump fee” is based directly on the volume of wood extracted, the 12 per cent royalty applied to mining companies is calculated as a percentage of net profit, an amorphous figure which Lapointe says amounts to no more than two to four per cent of real profits due to inventive accounting by the corporations.

One further focus for criticism is the province's much-hyped development strategy, known as the “Plan Nord,” which involves targeting government money at selected infrastructure projects favouring principally the resource extraction sector in northern Quebec. According to research conducted by The Dominion, last year's provincial budget earmarked $130 million for extending Highway 167 by 268km into the Otish Mountains, northeast of the James Bay Cree town of Mistissini. It is in an area without residential communities, but where Vancouver-based Strateco Resources has discovered some of Quebec's most concentrated uranium deposits.

On first impression, the City of Sept-Iles resembles any other medium-sized frontier town. Aluminum refining, forestry and fishing are the mainstays of the economy. A majority of businesses are clustered along the main drag. The houses have a prefab look. There is no vegetarian restaurant and few residents would self-identify as environmentalists.

But facing what many feel to be a clear and present danger, the townsfolk have banded together with a force and an originality of tactics that are startling. Beginning in 2009, SISUR made several inspections of the Lake Kachiwiss prospect site. They found Terra Ventures to be in violation of specific provisions of the environmental code and filmed and posted the evidence on the Internet. As a result, the provincial Environment Ministry temporarily shut down Terra Ventures' operations on several occasions as recurring violations were brought to light. Activists also periodically blockaded the prospect site.

Then, last December, a group of 24 Sept-Iles doctors signed a statement warning they would leave the North Shore if prospecting work was not halted. Though some media outlets criticized the doctors for their tactics, an anti-prospecting demo held in Sept-Iles on December 13 attracted 3,000 people out of a total population of 26,000.

The doctors' letter mentioned their specific concern about radon, a radioactive gas linked to lung cancer which is trapped in the bedrock and is released by prospecting. The issue grabbed headlines and was broached in Quebec's National Assembly.

“There's a whole debate that needs to happen,” says Loraine Richard, the Parti Quebecois Member of the National Assembly [MNA] for Sept-Iles. “When there are almost 20 doctors who want to leave my region, I stand up and take notice.” On February 17, Richard presented a citizens' petition to the National Assembly calling for a province-wide moratorium on uranium exploration, a concept supported by MNAs from the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire, but rejected by the majority Liberals.

Many activists now see the Sept-Iles experience as a template for successful organizing because it has mobilized citizens and politicians and made prospecting a public issue in a way it has never previously been in Quebec.

Nevertheless, the ultimate outcome for the Lake Kachiwiss site remains uncertain. For the moment, the provincial Liberals' strategy seems to be to deal with Sept-Iles as an isolated case that can be dealt with without addressing any broader issues of mining policy.

However, speaking in the National Assembly on December 4, Serge Simard, the Liberal minister responsible for mining, promised that a uranium mine at Lake Kachiwiss would not go forward without local endorsement. Also, in recent weeks Terra Ventures has suspended its prospecting in what looks to be a gentleman's agreement with the government.

But as Sept-Iles' MNA Richard points out: “If they [Terra Ventures] wanted to dig tomorrow morning, legally speaking, they could do it.”

And as long as the policy of free-entry mining remains unchallenged, it is difficult to see how either municipal legislators or MNAs like Simard can make promises to their constituents with any degree of conviction.

Chris Scott is a community radio host, activist and writer with experience reporting from northern Quebec.

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