An American geographer says the topography around Strateco’s uranium exploration proposal poses unacceptable threats to the region’s watershed
The Grand Council of the Crees and others in Eeyou Istchee opposed to Strateco Inc.’s plan for advanced uranium exploration in the Mistissini area recently made an important new ally: Michael Hunt, director of a Philadelphia firm called Watershed Vision.
In mid-February, Hunt circulated a Google Map (viewable here: http://goo.gl/maps/yHpEy) in which he isolated the area of the proposed Matoush project against colour-coded areas to highlight the proximity of the project to the Albanel-Mistassini-Waconichi Wildlife Reserve and the Albanel-Temiscamie-Otish National Park. As well, he used the map to identify the paths of the watersheds linking the proposed project site to the Temiscamie River.
“If even a small amount of uranium or toxic by-products (including, but not limited to, arsenic, thorium-230 and radioactive waste) were to get into the Temiscamie watershed,” Hunt said in the email accompanying the map, “the Wildlife Reserve and National Park would be permanently contaminated. Considering the dangerously close proximity of the proposed mines to this watershed, it is highly likely that contamination will occur, [risking the destruction of] the water supply of the nearby Mistassini community and the largest freshwater lake in Quebec, Lac Mistissini.”
According to the Facebook profile for Watershed Vision, the company’s mission “is to engage the public with rivers, parks and historic places through 360° photography and Google Maps, providing interactive, educational and creative tools to visualize and explore unique places virtually.” The company wants to educate the public in by using Google Maps to “tell the story of a region, watershed, project or environmental threat.”
At the moment, the Watershed Vision is working with the US National Park Service to design “Park View” and “River View” maps, using Google’s “Street View” technology to document natural locations.
“My work isn’t political,” Hunt insisted. “I’m not against mining. They need an economy [in Eeyou Istchee].” But he says all forms of resource development, whether hydro, coal, or other sources, have drawbacks and dangers to be evaluated against the projects potential economic benefits.
“But reading about radioactive material in these freshwater areas, that crossed a line for me,” he said. “My reaction was, ‘Holy shit! You’re putting a uranium mine 10 miles from your brand new national park! That is ridiculous!’”
Hunt has a childhood connection to Eeyou Istchee. Growing up, he attended and later became a counsellor at Camp Keewaydin, which runs summer camps in remote Ontario locations and organizes canoe trips throughout the James Bay region. Between the ages of 10 to 26, he paddled many of the waterways in northern Quebec, including the Rupert and Eastmain rivers.
Last year, Hunt and a friend again paddled the Rupert on a photographic expedition to document the changes in the river, which grew into the Watershed Vision project.
“What I want people to take away from [Watershed Vision] is that there are digital tools for people to understand and study the effects of this kind of industrialization,” he said. “With Google Maps, you can see the topography. If any toxins come into the system, you can see the direction they’ll go. You can’t lie about topography. It creates a very solid piece of evidence. No matter what you can say, this is the truth.”
For instance, he noted that Hydro-Quebec created large, shallow reservoirs that are demonstrably more quickly heated in the spring. New mapping technologies helps demonstrate how these artificial water bodies are affecting migration patterns of birds and animals.
Aurèle Gervais, spokesperson for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, says his organization has made “science-based” conclusions about the safety of the Matoush project, for which they granted a license last October.
“We’re there to make sure licensees carry out activities so that the environment and the public will be protected,” he said. “What we’re trying to do as an organization is to ensure the public that activities [licensed by the CNSC] are safe. It’s an attempt to reassure the public that we’re here to regulate the nuclear industry.”
The Matoush project has not yet been licensed for a mine, Gervais added, noting the CNSC has not yet received an application for mine construction. “In the case of a mine, the uranium ore would be dug out of the ground and transported to a mill, so I think the major concern that people have is the tailings that would remain,” he observed.
Gervais was unable provide exact data on the risk of soil or water contamination from advanced uranium exploration by Strateco. Nor did scientists at CNSC respond to written questions before the Nation went to press. The Nation will publish their responses if and when they arrive.
Regardless of the CNSC’s assurances, Michael Hunt is wary of the project.
“There’s a hard reality that you can do everything safely, but can you control a truck whipping along those roads and spilling a tank [of toxic materials]? How can you assure me that will not happen? [Radioactive] material is a completely different substance: once it gets out there, you can’t wipe it up like oil. And once that operation is up and running, even if they put cameras all over, there’s minimal control they can have over it.