The long-rumoured vanadium mine at Lac Doré in the Ouje-Bougoumou region is taking shape. Brighton, Michigan-based McKenzie Bay International hopes to have a pilot project running by next summer and has issued a flurry of communiqués since the spring outlining the $364 million-project’s progress, most recently announcing the engagement of a Montreal consulting firm to conduct an environmental impact study.

Entraco Inc. was named July 24 to undertake the study and secure the necessary permits to construct a mine, refinery and product manufacturing facilities 70 km southeast of Chibougamau, “thus minimizing any unanticipated environmental constraints.” Earlier, in June, McKenzie Bay announced that its wholly owned subsidiary, McKenzie Bay Resources, had entered into a partnership with a provincial mining firm to develop the project. Through SOQUEM Inc., a subsidiary of the Société general de financement, provincial taxpayers will own 20 per cent of the mine. The two parties have a deadline of Aug. 31 to sign a Joint Venture Agreement. The move is a sign of the Quebec government’s political interest in seeing the project through.

As then-Natural Resources Minister Jacques Brassard said in Chibougamau last summer, “We want to do our utmost to ensure that the Lac Doré vanadium deposit is put into production. If our efforts are successful, it will be ranked as one of the largest deposits in the world, with those in South Africa and Australia.” The partnership follows the completion of a feasibility study last April by SNC Lavalin. It indicated that the Lac Doré deposit is capable of producing large quantities of the purest vanadium on the planet. The Lac Doré site is vaunted as the biggest vanadium deposit in North America, and second-largest in the world. The feasibility study said the deposit is 16 km long with reserves of 80 million tonnes of vanadium electrolytes. Initial annual production is planned for a capacity of 63.5 million litres, and will see 300 people employed at the mine. The study said an open-pit mine 200 metres deep will eventually cover an area one kilometre wide and five kilometres long.

The company says the mine will be the lowest-cost producer in the world of high purity vanadium products. Its primary focus will be on producing vanadim for use in electricity storage technologies, especially the vanadium redox battery. Historically, vanadium has primarily been used as a steel alloy. More than 90 per cent of global vanadium production is currently used to toughen and strengthen carbon steels, tool steels and high-strength pipeline steels. Titanium-aluminum-vanadium alloys are also being used in the aerospace industry.

According to the SNC-Lavalin study, the mining history of the region “favors the social acceptability of the project.” It isn’t clear if the engineering company consulted any Ouje Crees.

It goes on to say that, “the receiving environment has a capacity for neutralizing contaminants far superior to all other regions of Quebec. Moreover, vanadium has a moderate toxicity compared to other metals and its potential for bioaccumulation is very low. At the effluent level, the mitigation measures for the industrial process are apt to ensure its regulatory compliance.” The New Hampshire geologist Christopher Covel says the mine poses some complex issues, however, noting that vanadium is a probable carcinogen. But it’s not so much the vanadium itself that worries him as the byproducts and active elements associated with it.

“You’re taking stable rock, taking it out of the ground and creating more surface area,” Covel notes. “That makes it unstable and releases elements into the environment.” The element that gives him the most concern is uranium, which is so closely associated with vanadium that it is has often been mined out of the same shafts. “So it’s not so much what the vanadium will do but the waste byproducts,” said Covel.

Indeed, the history of vanadium mining in the United States has been a sad one for the Navajo people of Arizona. Vanadium mining began in Navajo territory in the early 20th century. According to the Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE) group, vanadium mines expanded greatly throughout their territory in the 1930s as steel production was ramped up for the anticipated war with Germany. But as World War II raged on in Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s, the uranium in the mines became highly sought after to aid the development of the atomic bomb.

Thus, Diné men were enlisted to support the war effort in the uranium/vanadium mines. Many suffered from radiation poisoning and died of cancer. The mill tailings remain highly radioactive and leached into groundwater, even though measures were taken to protect the tailings from rain runoff.

CARE points to one study that found cancer rates among Navajo teenagers living near mine tailings to be 17 times the U.S. national average. Elsewhere in the Navajo Nation, a large number of open-pit mines have been left untreated and have since filled with water that is consumed by wildlife and livestock.

CARE emphasizes the foreknowledge necessary to guard against environmental and health catastrophes: “The most important in all this history is simply this: Navajo people were never informed of the hazards to their health that the mines posed. Hundreds of Navajo men gave their lives for the American war effort without ever leaving home soil. At the same time, families were similarly exposed to the dangers of radiation.” The U.S. government did provide a compensation program for radiation victims of the Arizona uranium mines. But this spring President George W. Bush cut its funding while he increased subsidies to the uranium industry in the same region by $30 million.

The lessons would seem to be that governments can not be seen as neutral players in the game of competing interests between people who live in mineral-rich regions and the companies that exploit those riches, especially when those governments have so much at stake politically.