Jeff Green | Dec 21, 2006
Feature Article - November 30, 2006
Back toHomeDecember 21st 2006
Uranium mining in FrontenacCounty?by Jeff Green--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The Frontenac Venture Corporation will be diamond drilling for samples of uranium-rich granite at sites in Central and North Frontenac starting next spring, but the possibility of a uranium mine being constructed in Frontenac County is slim, at least for the foreseeable future.
When contacted at his winter residence in Florida, George White, the President of Frontenac Venture Corporation, said the company has been “flying under the radar” in the past year as it has been accumulating exploration rights to properties in Oso, Olden and Palmerston districts. Frontenac Venture has staked claims on Crown land, much of it in the vicinity of CrotchLake, and on land where the subsurface rights are not owned by the surface land owner. They have also been negotiating leases with a couple of landowners who own the subsurface rights to their property.
Thus far, claims assessment work has been done either through gamma ray spectrometer readings from the surface or through readings taken from larger instruments mounted on airplanes.
Exploration has taken place at these locations in the past; George White himself first got involved in FrontenacCounty in 1965, but today, improved technology is now being employed. As well, new regulations that came out of the BRE-X gold mining scandal require fresh data before a mining property can be sold on the open market.
Next spring, core samples will be taken at locations scattered throughout the 30 to 35,000 acres that George White says are involved in the exploration his company is planning. The company’s geologist Dr. Terry Bottrill told the News that the drilling for core samples of uranium does not cause any release of radiation at the surface. “There is already radiation present at the surface,” Bottrill explained, “all of the earth is radioactive. Taking core samples presents no risk to anybody.”
The drills that are used to take core samples are about the size of a 5 ton truck. They are generally pulled to the drilling site by a tractor. The holes drilled will be up to 200 metres deep, and rock rods about 1.5 inches in diameter will be removed and taken away for analysis.
On this point, Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch Canada, a not-for-profit organisation that monitors mining operations throughout Canada which is often critical of the uranium industry, agrees with Terry Bottrill.
“As long as the drill holes are capped, diamond drilling does not pose a risk,” Kneen told the News.
According to Pam Sangster, a geologist with the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development of Mines who works out of the Ministry office in Tweed, there are no special precautions required for uranium exploration as opposed to exploration for any other mineral.
This does not mean that drilling will not cause any difficulties. In cases where exploration is taking place on private land, bringing the drilling apparatus to the desired locations will entail clearing swaths of vegetation on the property of surface rights owners. In cases where the staking itself has made surface rights owner wary, this kind of activity will undoubtedly be seen as an infringement.
If the exploration proceeds to the mine development stage, the regulatory situation will change. At that point Natural Resources Canada gets involved, along with regulatory agencies such as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
According to John French, Advisor, Uranium Mines, Natural Resources Canada, “It’s a little bit ambiguous as to when these federal agencies become involved, but when it becomes clear that there is likely an economic deposit, which could happen after there has been a lot of drilling, or more likely when an economic development study is underway, a rigorous process is undertaken with lots of opportunity for public input.”
Historically, uranium deposits in Ontario have been relatively low grade, around 1% of the rock is uranium. In Saskatchewan, which is the location of currently operating mines, levels of 40% are common.
In Ontario, uranium mining requires the removal of large amounts of rock, which then must be milled. Uranium is very heavy, and the milling process allows the uranium to sink and be removed from the rest of the rock. According to Terry Bottrill, mills are generally located close to the source material in order to minimise transportation costs. The uranium is then transferred to a refinery for further processing.
What is left at the end of the milling is a small amount of uranium, and tons of powdered rock. These are known as tailings.
As George White describes it, the rock that is left behind as tailings is formerly uranium-rich rock that has had 96% of the radioactivity removed. He said “cleaner rock goes back in than is taken out.”
“The foot print of mining operations is insignificant,” added Terry Bottrill, “and in the region we are dealing with in FrontenacCounty, near CrotchLake, it will have no impact on summer cottages because there are none in the immediate vicinity.”
Bottrill points to ElliottLake [the site of the largest and longest running uranium mines in Ontario], which is now being transformed into a seniors community. “Do you think that would be the case if uranium tailings were not under control?” Bottrill said.
Jamie Kneen, of Mining Watch Canada, says that uranium tailings are indeed more dangerous than naturally occurring uranium-rich rock. “There is a difference between a rock that has been in a stable formation for several hundred million years, and one that is ground up into a powdery sand. If it is kept under control, it is still basically a perpetual hazard. As well, there are other radioactive minerals present in the tailings, such as thorium, which has a half life of 240,000 years. Historically, there have been a series of spills, starting in 1975, at ElliottLake and elsewhere. Even though they are trying to stabilise the situation at ElliottLake, where most of the tailings are now dammed up, there are a couple of places where they’ve still got dry tailings on the ground.
“It’s interesting that Elliott Lake is now being marketed to seniors,” Kneen added, “because the impacts of radiation exposure are felt over the long term, about 30 years. This makes it is less of a concern for seniors than it is for younger people.”
In Saskatchewan, it has become common practice to return most of the tailings to the mined out pits, which Kneen says is still “basically an experimental technology. It will take 30, 50, or 100 years until we find out if these tailings pits are self maintaining.”
Before a mine can proceed, according to John French of Natural Resources Canada, current regulations demand that a plan for handling tailings and a closure plan for the mine and the mine site must be approved. “The situation is different today than it was when, for example, the ElliottLake mines were established,” he said.
Concerns over tailings are probably premature, given the fact that the FrontenacCounty uranium deposits have never been economically viable in the past.
“Every time the price of uranium goes up, it leads to a flurry of activity,” said John French. “They start off with old data, they reassess. But it doesn’t change things if there is no economic deposit there.”
Jamie Kneen points out that there is no worldwide shortage of processed uranium to meet current or foreseeable demand.
“No new nuclear reactors have been ordered yet,” he pointed out. “The United States reportedly has a 40-year supply of uranium, and there is a lot of highly enriched uranium in Russia as well. Don’t forget that most of mining is about mining the stock market.”
This has not stopped George White from investing a significant amount of his own money, and money from a group of 12 investors that are behind the Frontenac Venture Corporation, into this project. He expresses the belief, as does Terry Bottrill, that not only is a uranium mine possible in this region, but that it is the kind of development that would bring much needed employment to the youth of the region, and would bring other economic benefits to a region that has been struggling for many decades.
This can be done, they assert, without hurting the existing economy, which is based on clean lakes, and the natural beauty of the area.Other Stories this Week View RSS feed