| Feb 07, 2008

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Feature Article - February 7, 2008 Uranium mining in Ontario: Economic Boom or Environmental Disaster?By Jeff Green

The Stanrock Tailing Wall int eh Elliot lake are: the 30 ft high will in the background is composed of millions of tons of radioactive mill waste.

The impasse over uranium exploration in North Frontenac is being played out as a jurisdictional dispute between two local Algonquin communities and the Province of Ontario, and the situation in and around the Robertsville mine remains unresolved.

The question at the heart of the current situation is that of the relative merits of the Algonquins’ claim to the land. It was the government, through the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, that granted Frontenac Ventures Corporation the right to explore for uranium on a 30,000 acre tract in North Frontenac Township.

Disputes over jurisdiction between local Algonquins and Ontario are not new. Just last year the Ardoch Algonquins assumed the Pine Lake boat launch; and the Algonquin Land Claim process itself, which is intended to settle jurisdiction once and for all, has a long, tortured history. The difference in this case, and the reason why the Robertsville mine has become such a major political and ideological battle and has been the catalyst for a new alliance between environmentalists and aboriginals, is the mineral that is being explored: uranium.

Uranium mining has been a profitable venture in Ontario throughout the 20th Century, and although the last active mine was shut down in the early 1990s, the likelihood is good that mining will resume within 10 years. Just west of Bancroft, two companies: copper mining giant El Nino, and an Arizona-based exploration company, Bancroft Uranium, have plans to do test drilling for uranium in the coming months.

And at Elliot Lake, the site of the largest uranium mines in Ontario, at least one company, Pele Mountain Resources, has been test drilling on a 4,000 hectare site that is about 11 km east of the City of Elliot Lake. The Pele Mountain project has progressed to what is called the scoping stage, and in a press release from October 7, the company announced that the field work for the first phase of its baseline environmental studies has been completed. There are also site plans and drilling proposals available as part of the material the company has put together to promote their project.

The Pele Mountain site is similar to the Frontenac Ventures site in North Frontenac in that although it has been explored on several occasions over the past 50 years and test holes have been drilled, there never has been a mine at that location.

The impacts from the historic Elliot Lake uranium tailings ponds and a hydrochloric acid plant have been heavily felt on the Serpent River Reserve, whch is located downstream from the mines near Lake Huron. These impacts have been documented in a book called “This is my Homeland” by Lorraine Reckmans. The book contains interviews with a number of people from the Serpent River Reserve who have developed a variety of cancers that Reckmans attributes to exposure to radioactivity.

Still, the Serpent River Band Council is considering working in concert with Pele Mountain on their proposed development. The Serpent River First Nation's traditional territory, according to a document posted on the Union of Ontario Indian's website, “extends from the waters of the North Channel of Lake Huron, Serpent River Basin; north beyond the city of Elliot Lake, encompassing the area of the Elliot Lake Uranium Mine Project currently being explored by Pele Mountain Resources Inc.”

Environmental surveys of the proposed Pele mine site, and botanical, fisheries and wildlife surveys of the site have been completed by a team that includes a member of the 1138-person Serpent River First Nation.

The band asserts that the provincial and federal governments have a “duty to consult” the First Nations on any propsed development on their traditional territory, which is something that will be familiar to people following the dispute in North Frontenac.

There are differences in Serpent River, however. Serpent River is a reserve and the community is a “status” band in the terms of the Indian Act, which makes their relationship with the Government of Canada different. There is also a co-operative relationship between the band council and Pele Mountain.

Chief Isadore Day said, “We are encouraged that Pele has acknowledged the vital role of Serpent River First Nation in the exploration and development of natural resources within our traditional territory. While there is a great deal of work to be done, we look forward to beginning work with Pele on the development of a consultation framework and a process that is consistent with our Constitutionally-protected Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. Consultation with our Community is paramount; and as stated to Pele in the past, Serpent River First Nation maintains the right to oppose this project at any stage”.

While there are members of the Serpent River First Nation who oppose any further uranium mining upstream from the community, it seems Pele Mountain has been able to convince the band council that new regulations and modern “best practices” have made it possible to mine uranium safely.

This is certainly the claim of the mining industry.

But there are others who argue that, even if the mining process can be improved to the point where the people working at the mine and living around the mine are not exposed to radiactive dust as the ore is extracted and separated from tons of rock by-products, the problem of tailings remains.

Photo of a historic uranium mine in the Northwest Territories.

In December, Mining Watch Canada released a long-anticipated policy statement on uranium mining. In it they call for a moratorium on uranium exploration and new mines across Canada until three conditions are met. The first is a public concensus over nuclear power in Canada; the second is a clean up of existing contamination and compensation to those who have suffered as a result of contamination; and the third is the development of a “sound, long-term, economically feasible, scientifically demonstrated, and publicly acceptable means of isolating radioactive wastes (from the mining, processing, and use of uranium) from the environment and from human communities.”

According to Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch Canada, “Storage methods that are being employed for tailings at the active Saskatchewan mines might work, but we are 50, 75, or even 100 years away from knowing if the storage systems work as advertised.”

A variety of storage systems are in use to store the fine particles that are left behind when uranium is processed, including burial, underwater storage, and placing the tailings in open pit mines and berming or damming up the sides of pit to prevent the material from getting out.

Above: a ridge of tailings at the old Dyno mine near BancroftRight: Broken signs, posted at the Dyno mine

According to Gordon Edwards, who has chronicled the environmental and health impacts of the nuclear industry for the past 30 years with the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsbility, there is a significant danger from radon gas in the early stages of tailings storage, but in the longer term it is the long-lived elements and their short-lived so-called “daughter elements” that make tailings ponds such ticking time bombs.

Thorium in particular, which takes hundreds of thousands of years to break down completely, is toxic in extremely low doses, Edwards says.

Edwards has said that if, in the mining process, elements such as thorium were removed as uranium is extracted, the tailings ponds would not be such a long-term hazard.

“However, there is no economic value to thorium, and it would have to be stored as toxic waste as well,” said Jamie Kneen.

A different picture of tailings storage emerges from industry-friendly sources.

For instance, in the promotional material prepared by Aurora Energy, a company that is proposing to build a uranium mine in Labrador, tailings are characterized as manageable.

According to Aurora’s material, “Radioactive elements have always been in the ground in Labrador and they will remain there essentially forever. For this reason, it is important that any tailings storage structure or management system be able to contain tailings materials with little or no active management. When such structures are designed properly, tailings can be contained even as the land is returned to normal use, such as wetlands or green spaces with growing trees and ground plants, with no impact on the people, plants, fish, or animals in the area.”

The argument that radioactive elements are naturally occuring and tailings ponds are no more dangerous than other naturally occuring radioactive locations is not supported by Gordon Edwards.

“It makes a huge difference,” he said in a presentation in Carleton Place last fall, “when radiactove elements that are encased in rock are brought to the surface, crushed and exposed to oxygen, and then piled. The level of radioactive elements remains elevated for hundreds of thousands of years and we don't have the capacity to design containment structures for that length of time.”

According to Edwards, aboriginal peoples are predominantly the ones who suffer exposure to radiation.

“The first casualties of uranium mining were Dene in the Northwest Territories, and aboriginal peoples always seem to be the ones who suffer.”

Gordon Edwards has been a vocal critic of all things nuclear for the past 30 years, and over that same period of time Douglas Chambers, a Toronto-based consultant with the SENES corporation, has been doing risk assessment work for private corporations in the nuclear field since graduating with his PhD in Physics from McMaster University in 1973. He has a particular focus in risk assessment for uranium mill tailings. He has done work for Frontenac Ventures Corporation, preparing an affidavit on the environmental impacts of test drilling for uranium for court proceedings last summer.

In a telephone interview, he told the News that from his point of view uranium tailings can indeed be managed safely over the long term, and that the “regulatory strcuture for uranium tailings is quite stringent currently”. He pointed out that in the current regulatory environment, any company seeking approval for a new mine, “must have financial sureties in place.”

Chambers does not discount the concerns that people have, saying that in dealing with these issues over the years, “I have developed a comfort level, but any new development has to solicit local opinion, and deal with the actual effects on the environment.”

The basic difference between Chambers’ viewpoint and that of Edwards is in the potential impact of mine tailings, and mining operations as well, on public and environmental health, In Chambers’ view, the risk can be controlled, and is minimal to begin with, but Edwards argues that it is great, it persists over time, and it is impossible to control effectively.

“I think Dr. Edwards honestly has those concerns, but I feel he is mistaken,” Chambers concludes.

Jim Harding is another critic of the uranium and nuclear industries. He is a retired Professor of Environmental Studies from Regina who recently published a book called “Canada's Deadly Secret” which is about uranium mining in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan is home to Canada's richest uranium deposits, and is the current source of all uranium produced in this, the largest uranium producing country in the world.

Jim Harding outlines several breaches of regulations and failures of containment systems in the Saskatchewan mines, which he says have taken place since new regulations came into force.

Among the examples he points to are the McArthur mine, the largest in the world, which opened in 1999 and is still operating, but which had to be supended in 2003 becaue of a flooding problem, and the slumping of a tailings pond serving the Key Lake mine in 2004.

In 2003, Harding writes, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission renewed the license for the Rabbit Lake Mine in Northern Saskatchewan, allowing the mining company, CAMECO, to breach a dike that separated a mined-out pit from Wollaston Lake.

According to Harding, even though Mining Watch and the nearby community of Wollaston Lake opposed this action, and sought a full assessment, the commission classed the breaching of the dam as “site rehabilitation” and a consultative process and environmental assessment were circumvented.

Closer to home, a group called FUME (Fight Uranium Mining and Exploration) has sprung up to oppose uranium exploration near Bancroft, where a junior mining company called Bancroft Uranium is active.

There are signifigant tailings storage facilities near Bancroft from mines that have been closed, such as the former Dyno mine, and members of FUME have documented that security at the sites is less than lax. There is no fence, no security personnel, only a few broken signs, and no sign that any monitoring is taking place, but lots of evidence that the site has become popular with hunters.

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