Boucherville-based Strateco Resources Inc. has announced its intention to build Quebec’s first uranium mine in Eeyou Istchee’s Otish Mountains. It could be in operation as early as 2011.

The mine has been in the exploration stages for a couple of years. Strateco is expected to spend $16 million on drilling and other facets of exploration in 2007 alone. Construction of the mine is projected to cost $125 million.

A German company explored the area for uranium in 1992, but when world uranium prices fell, the company went bankrupt. As uranium prices skyrocketed in recent years, however, Strateco started negotiations for the claim in the Otish Mountains and secured exclusive rights in 2006. Nuclear power is seen as a greener power source in an era that is increasingly concerned by global warming and high prices for conventional energy sources.

Strateco CEO Guy Hébert told the Nation that he hopes Crees from Mistissini would be working on the mine if the Cree/Quebec environmental review board COMEX approves the project.

He also said that Cree workers will be finishing their contracts at the Troilus mine north of Chibougamau in the next few years and already have the necessary training to work in a mine.

Uranium mining operations are supposed to take special precautions because of the high levels of gamma radiation involved. Hébert said that his company takes safety seriously and that a government-mandated sum of money will be set aside to clean up the site after the Streteco mine is exhausted.

Baseline data is also being gathered to measure radiation levels before, during and after the life of the mine.

He also added that a dosimeter, used to measure high levels of hazardous substances, would check each worker at the end of the day.

Cree Grand Chief Mathew Mukash declined to comment at this point, saying he wants to learn more about the project and the industry.

Geologist Chris Covel, who is locally well known from his role in the Oujé-Bougoumou contamination controversy, said a uranium mine could be very dangerous.

“The long and short of it is that if the contamination, which is inevitable from uranium, is not dealt with and decontaminated properly prior to the workers leaving the site as per proper procedure, then the contamination will spread,” said Covel.

His fear is that Cree workers, even with the help of the dosimeter, could bring uranium contamination back with them into the communities after working their shift.

There are currently 45 workers working three drills, some of whom are Cree.

The scary part, said Covel, is that uranium contamination (which remains toxic for thousands of years), is not visible. So when mom and dad end up with cancer or leukemia, it might be due to high radiation levels gathered from the mine over a long period of time.

“Say you’re a construction worker and you go in and rip a building apart and you get sheet rock dust all over you,” Covel said. “You get it in your boots and your clothes. That you can see. You can see it in the laundry room, you can see it in your truck, and you can see it blowing around. But with uranium, you can’t.”

The Dene of Deline, Northwest Territories, have dealt with the effects of uranium mining at Port Radium. Their village became known as “the village of widows” after an unprecedented number of their men became stricken with cancer and died.

A report was released in 2005 detailing the difficulty in linking the uranium exposure of the workers, who were transporters of the ore, to cancer. Concrete evidence may be tough to find as most of the men have passed away after working in the mine that had a life span of over 30 years.

The Otish Mountains are brimming with activity and are “on a lot of people’s radar,” according to Robert Orviss of Becher McMahon Capital Markets. His firm organized an Otish Basin Uranium Conference last month in Toronto.

Covel added that radiation charts used by most countries are not designed for safe levels of exposure for infants. They can identify what a safe level for a man in his 40s at average height, but until that number better reflects the size and vulnerability of a child, kids are the most vulnerable.

Hébert agreed that everyone should be aware of the risks if a uranium mine is opened in the area of the Otish Mountains.

“You can’t fool around with it,” he said. “You don’t want to have too much exposure.”

Uranium does have different effects on each individual, said Covel. Exposure doesn’t guarantee cancer, but it does increase the risk significantly.

“Everyone is different,” he said. “For some people it won’t show up until some time down the road. For others, it will show up immediately.”

Covel compared it to cigarette smoking. He lost an uncle at the age of 35 due to smoking, yet his father smoked for many years and only quit at 50, but is still apparently healthy at 72.

Covel said that the economic benefits of a potential uranium mine do not outweigh the high price it exacts in the health of workers and their communities. “The cost is not worth the human sacrifice that comes along with it,” he said.

“What’s the cost of a life? What if it was your brother or sister? Also what is the Cree Nation going to get out of it? In my mind, there is no safe way to mine uranium.”