We long ago became accustomed to the environmental review reports issued by those who wish to exploit the land. Usually we are told there will be few problems if any, no real impacts and that the materials to be left behind are already naturally present in the environment anyway. So why worry?
We are told that the reports are backed up by apparently solid evidence from respected scientists. The truth is that when you have two sides (whether equal or not) you can find someone considered an expert to promote whatever you want regardless of its credibility. Just look at the warped debate over climate change. The scientist just chooses the data that works for their employer and people who don’t understand the science can be bamboozled, or at the very least, infected with a tiny virus of doubt.
First of all, you have to understand that the data we are supplied, whether it is from the proponent or opponent, can be reliably counted on to buttress the respective positions of either side. Chemicals or elements are everywhere and there are no inherently safe or dangerous chemicals or elements. It is how they are used or released into the environment that determines whether they are dangerous or harmless.
Whether or not a chemical or element is already present in nature or is a byproduct of resource exploitation (such as mining, forestry or hydro-electric dams) has no real meaning. The presence of the chemicals doesn’t relate to risk. It is the amount that matters. The amount can be small but still have detrimental effects out of proportion to what has been released and the opposite is also true. And yes, there will be an impact on the environment.
You can never totally eliminate potential risks. In each instance potential risks have to be measured against potential benefits. Any chemical or element that is introduced into an environment will cause harm of some sort and to think that it won’t is foolish and naïve. Environmental assessments are about relative safety not absolute safety.
It does not mean we should not have any development projects but that we should thoroughly examine, understand and evaluate each one accordingly. Risk assessments these days are clearer and better understood than in the past and greener solutions are more available and easier to implement. But one maxim stands out and is truer than ever: if it sounds too good to be true it usually is!
It is impossible to know all the repercussions of introducing more of a specific chemical or element into the environment. Crees know Hydro-Quebec said the mercury problem would only last 30 years or so and still it shows little sign of slowing down. Old mine tailings in the Ouje-Bougoumou region continue to pose a threat even as newer projects are seriously considered.
We can’t accept the messages bombarding the Crees and other Northern residents at face value. The potential impacts demonstrated by the scientific evaluation of data cannot by erased by having more people deny or spin the truth more frequently.
Some agreements for the Cree, such as the Trolius Mines Agreement, have proven benefits. Others may prove to be only as beneficial as the smoke and mirrors used to hide unacceptable risks that the Cree of Eeyou Istchee will have to endure for generations. We all need to understand the true risks of resource extraction proposals in order to evaluate whether the benefits outweigh the costs.