Monday, March 9, 2009

Uranium Debate Rages Along Quebec's North Shore as Locals Oppose Mines

MONTREAL — Lac Kachiwiss has long been valued by the denizens of more than a dozen hunting and fishing camps that dot its secluded shoreline.

Accessible on land only by snowmobile, the wilderness area hundreds of kilometres north of Quebec City provides a winter getaway for many residents of the Quebec port town of Sept-Iles, about 20 kilometres away.

But these days there is another group that treasures the rugged back-country terrain.

A British Columbia-based prospecting company has cast an eye on a rocky bluff that overlooks the lake, where it says lies a vast deposit of increasingly valuable low-grade uranium.

Like more and more regions across Canada, locals are bristling over the prospect that radioactive metal could be unearthed so close to their town.

In Sept-Iles, many fear that mining waste would threaten their drinking water, which is drawn from a nearby lake.

"Eventually it will leak and eventually it will contaminate,"said Sept-Iles resident Marc Fafard, founder of a local group pushing for a ban on uranium mining and exploration in the area.

The property's owner, junior mining firm Terra Ventures Inc. (TSXV:TAS), first stirred up concerns last year when it fired up its exploratory drills.

Hundreds of citizens marched through Sept-Iles in a demonstration and demanded the province suspend uranium exploration and extraction in the region. Around 3,000 signed a petition.

Even Sept-Iles city council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the government to declare a permanent ban.

Neighbouring communities along the northern banks of the Gulf of St. Lawrence - also known as Quebec's North Shore - have recently adopted similar legislation, as exploration intensifies in the region.

Canada is the world's top source for raw uranium, a substance primarily used to make fuel for nuclear power. Most of it is mined in northern Saskatchewan.

But in recent years prospectors have been sniffing for uranium in Labrador and Atlantic Canada - regions previously deemed too expensive to exploit.

And public resistance has come with it.

Several regions, including B.C., Nova Scotia and the Labrador Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut, have established moratoriums on uranium.

Last summer, New Brunswick imposed stricter guidelines on uranium mining.

But in Quebec, a province long recognized as mining-friendly, the government refuses to declare a moratorium.

"For now there's no question, we won't go to a moratorium on uranium," Serge Simard, Quebec's junior minister responsible for mining, told The Canadian Press.

He said citizen concerns are entrenched in their "lack of knowledge" about uranium. In May, the government will take part in a public information forum on the metal for North Shore residents.

"We will bring in specialists, we will possibly bring in people from Saskatchewan to also give all of their information to shine some light for the people who want to have a moratorium," Simard said.

"There is no danger for public health, except that right now it's a question of perception and we want the population to be informed to the maximum."

The price of uranium surged in recent years amid the burst in global demand. It's dropped over the last year, but still remains two-and-a-half times higher than it was five years ago.

Jean-Pierre Thomassin, director general of Quebec's mining exploration association, said mining firms have been spending a lot of cash in the province looking for uranium.

"It would not be very wise for the government to say to these people: 'Well, we made a mistake, we should not have given you a permit to explore there, so bye bye,' " Thomassin said.

"That's not a good message to the industry."

Nuclear power has been gaining popularity as a "greener" energy source that emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

But Jim Harding, author of Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System, said the toxic materials used to extract uranium, and the dangers of the metal itself, mean it's anything but green.

He said the uranium mining debate has become a "pan-Canadian issue."

"If I lived in an area where they were doing uranium mining, based on what I know about toxicity, lifespan and environmental health and increased risks, I'd move," said Harding, a retired justice and environmental studies professor.

"We're not studying it, we're acting like a Third World economy that wants to keep our head in the sand because of the short-term economic interests."

Gunther Roelig, president of Terra Ventures, said he sympathizes with local unease in Sept-Iles.

He said it's a matter of informing the public how safe modern mining practices have become.

"Unfortunately, uranium has this incredibly negative connotation where some people really just, you know, freak out," he said in a phone interview.

"It's been physically there on the surface for billions and billions of years.

"Again, I'm not an expert but how much radiation dose do you get when you go to your dentist and have your X-ray done compared to this kind of stuff?"

Fafard left last week for an eight-day, 1,000-kilometre snowmobile trek to encourage locals along the North Shore to attend the forum.

The father of four said it's time to make the controversy over uranium mining a provincial, and even national, matter.

"Our point is that we're not going to be the test bed for case studies for low-level radioactive contamination," said Fafard, who believes radioactive tailings would linger in ponds on the site for centuries.

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