There has been a lot of talk about the battle fought by the people of Sept-Îles against the uranium mine project there. Currently, there is an active debate surrounding the exploitation of shale gas. Meanwhile, just 975 km north of there, the first uranium mine in Quebec is quietly cutting a swath through the spruce trees.
Strateco Resources, a relatively new uranium company based in Boucherville (although two of its principle shareholders are in Toronto and New York), is pulling out all the stops to make sure that the Matoush Project will be the first uranium mine in Québec in early 2014. At the moment they are in the process of obtaining an exploration permit, but surface drilling started in 2009.
What difference will a few little holes drilled in the ground and a few tonnes of over turned rocks make in this isolated corner of the world, anyway?
Situated 275 km north of the mythical town of Chibougamau, this isolated spot is part of the Crees’ traditional hunting territory. It is also 15 km from what will be the Albanel-Témiscamie-Otish National Park, and around 100 km from Mistassini Lake, the largest soft water lake in Québec. The site is also in the heart of the Otish mountains, “from where the waters originate,” as the Crees say.
Water from the Otish Mountains feeds James Bay and the St. Lawrence River. “In fact, it is at the heart of these mountains that most of our great rivers find their source: Rupert, Eastmain, La Grande, Péribonka, Aux Outardes and Manicouagan.”
So Strateco Resources is planning to install its first uranium mine on nothing less than the “hydro-graphic hub of Quebec.” I say “first”, because if this mine comes to pass, the door will be opened for the development of more uranium mines in the region.
Like other local residents, I am worried. To reassure us, the members of the Conférence régionale des élus de la Baie-James (CREBJ) took on the job of informing the population by organizing “objective” information sessions. They invited, among others, experts from Genivar, an engineering consulting firm that, it must be noted, counts Strateco Resources among its clients.
Physicist Mr. Rhéaume, who is director of Genivar’s nuclear division, explained mining waste this way: “After the pure uranium is extracted, what we leave behind are residues [radioactive elements] that are exactly what we find in nature. We return them to nature after they have been chemically treated in the uranium mine mill.” It’s practically an ecological procedure. According to Mr. Rhéaume, in terms of uranium exploration, “there are no risks there.”
I left that information session with the impression that uranium was a natural product not unlike magnesium, calcium or goji berries, and that basically, uranium is not any more toxic than other substances. According to Dr. Plante, the director of health and security at the Gentilly-2 nuclear generating station, it’s all a question of dose levels. As long as the dose of absorbed radiation is controlled, everything will be tickety-boo.
Hardly satisfied with this no doubt one-sided information session, a few of us decided we would like to meet with independent critics who could show us the other side of the coin.
Upon which our elected members, among them Luc Ferland (MNA for Ungava), responded as a unit by saying that they would only invite neutral scientists, not anyone who was opposed to nuclear power. Neutrality was also evoked by Gary James, the Director of the Centre d’études collégiales de Chibougamau, when he refused to allow doctors who had been critical of Sept-Îles, among them Dr. Isabelle Gingras and Dr. Eric Notebaert, entrance to his establishment in order to participate in a debate on uranium that had been organized by teachers. Yet, as the President of the Board of Directors of the Table jamésienne de concertation minière (TJCM), whose mission is to support the development of the mining industry in the region, Mr. James himself can hardly be considered neutral.
So, as I understand it, in the debate on the Matoush Project you can either be neutral or you can be against it. In northern Quebec, nobody wants to hear from specialists who are against the nuclear industry. Even if that specialist is a renowned nuclear physicist such as Dr. Michel Duguay or Dr. Gordon Edwards, who give conferences all over the world on the risks of nuclear energy. There’s no danger of them being invited. In northern Quebec, we don’t want to see anyone rain on our parade.
Although they are disguised as neutral observers, our elected officials support this project. Fine. If they think the creation of a maximum of 300 jobs over around 12 years (the projected length of time it will take to conduct explorations and exploit the mine) and 2% royalties for the state are worth risking the health of the Cree and James Bay populations and the possible irreversible contamination of a site with radioactive mining waste for hundreds of thousands of years, that’s their opinion. However, when they censor advocates who are of a different opinion and refuse them access to a forum on their own territory, it shows that they have forgotten that they were elected by a democracy.
During the consultations on Bill 79, which modified mining laws, Serge Simard, the Minister for Natural Resources and Wildlife, asked the members of CREBJ if they were planning to inform the local population by holding a forum on uranium in Northern Quebec. To which the mayor of Chibougamau, Manon Cyr, replied, “Basically, we have had an ongoing forum.”
Apart from three advertorial style articles on uranium that took up two full pages in the local paper on the same day as the first phase of the public talks on the Matoush Project in Chibougamau, I saw no evidence of any public forums on the topic, let alone an ongoing forum.
The mayor of Chibougamau is shouting from the rooftops that they have done their job and that the local population is very well informed. If Madame Mayor, who also sits on the Board of Directors of the TJCM, is responsible for ensuring that we receive neutral information, I am not reassured.
She told the commission on Bill No. 79, “If you put a moratorium on uranium development tomorrow morning, we will be disappointed.”
Personally, I know that when I am disappointed, I am not neutral.
I would like our elected officials to think about regional development as visionaries rather than as opportunists; I would like them to admit that there is quite a lot of scientific uncertainty around the exploitation of uranium; and I would like them to recognize that the local population has the right to access this information. If they are afraid to have an open debate on this question maybe it is because there are good reasons not to remain neutral.
Resident of northern Quebec, Lac Cavan
1 Albanel-Témiscamie-Otish Park Project, Status Report, 2005, p.20
2 Albanel-Témiscamie-Otish Park Project, Status Report, 2005, p.20