Will uranium mining ruin cottage country?
A primer on mining's history & its effects on our favourite getaways
The threat of the impact beyond private property inspires less personal, broader concerns, and ones fuelled by experience: The former mine operators worked underground tunnels, a less destructive technique than the open pits now on the horizon. Even so, “they left a hell of a mess behind, and taxpayers had to foot the bill” to clean it up, says Dave Burton, the warden of Haliburton County.
Open pits, on the other hand, begin with scouring trees and soil from the surface. Next, millions of tonnes of “overburden” are blasted and pushed aside. Then, a similar amount of uranium-bearing ore is dynamited, scooped onto giant trucks, and hauled to a crusher. The tiny percentage that’s uranium—last summer, Bancroft Uranium reported about 250 grams per tonne of ore from its exploration of the Monmouth site in Haliburton—is trucked away for processing. When the mine is played out, the residue, a mountain of low-level radioactive “tailings,” might be shoved back into the pit.
Defacement of the land is only the beginning of the story. Cottagers might have to put up with regular explosions, as well as daily disruption from truck and heavy-equipment traffic, noise, and dust, and the prospect of radioactive contamination. “We’re not in immediate proximity, but how do you define proximity with an open-pit mine?” says Susan Fraser, who shares a four-season cottage with her husband and two children on Kennisis Lake, about 40 kilometres from the closest claim.
Like many others, her view is coloured by a recent report, Five Reasons to Oppose Uranium Mining and Exploration, from the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, a non-governmental advocacy group that works to inform Canadians on issues of social and economic concern. It warns of harm from uranium and a by-product, radon gas, within a 100-kilometre radius from open pits. There may also be a link between radon gas and an increase in some cancers, as the report suggests. It goes on to say that drilling can release radioactive materials through groundwater into drinking water and that uranium by-products in the waste “also leach into nearby watersheds and ecosystems, contaminating them forever.” The US Environ¬mental Protection Agency says, “A person can be exposed to uranium by inhaling dust in air, or ingesting water and food…People who live near…facil¬ities that mine or process uranium ore or enrich uranium for reactor fuel may have increased exposure to uranium. When uranium gets inside the body it can lead to cancer or kidney damage.” Further, it warns that “people who live near uranium mining areas…may have increased exposure to uranium, especially if their water is from a private well.”
Still, mining executives insist the fears are unfounded, citing rigorous safety and environmental practices and an awareness of community needs. Further, Abitibi’s Kevin Hull and some local residents point to the jobs mining would create. Company estimates are vague, but a few dozen people likely would be directly employed at each mine for perhaps five to 10 years, a benefit real estate agent Steve Lesak, an eight-year resident, recognizes. “There are no jobs here; there’s no industry. Mining would keep people here.” It’s fine to talk about stores and restaurants, he says, but “young people can’t raise a family on twelve dollars an hour.” Hull also points out there would be a “spin-off of four jobs for every one direct mining job. Everybody from local grocers and dentists to construction companies would benefit.” The prospect appeals to Larry Hewitt, whose Haliburton-based Hawk River Construction levelled drill sites for Bancroft’s recent drilling program. “We can’t all live on Bloor Street in Toronto,” Hewitt says. “There are people who enjoy living and working in the country. Others come up to enjoy tourism. When they get to nature, they’re upset if they see a truck on the road.”
Many, though, believe mining’s negative impact could far outweigh any benefit. Tourism is Haliburton’s mainstay, Susan Fraser points out; the 50,000 or so cottagers pay the lion’s share of the property taxes, plus they and other visitors support a wide range of stores, restaurants, and services, which could disappear if the area became less attractive.
“I’m for sustainable development,” Fraser says. “I just don’t see open-pit uranium mining as sustainable.” Cottager Susanne Lauten’s main concerns are for the health of people in the area and the environment, and she fears the mining companies will simply take their profits and leave. Paul MacInnes agrees: “We bought here to enjoy the environment. It’s why people come here. We cannot have a viable economy without a strong environment. Without that, we’ll have economic difficulty for years to come.”
FUME and its supporters want the province to give all property owners control over mineral rights. They also advocate a moratorium on exploration and mining across southern Ontario, at least until the impact is reviewed. (As it stands, mining operations are not required to undergo an environmental assessment prior to opening a site.) The move wouldn’t be radical, they argue: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia have restricted or temporarily banned uranium mining and exploration. After hard lobbying by Robin Simpson, slim majorities at each township council and at the county level (as well as at the council of tourism-dominated City of Kawartha Lakes to the south) supported a moratorium. “I felt the short-term gain from mining wasn’t worth the risk,” says Haliburton County Warden Dave Burton.
Though the federal government grants permits for uranium extraction and oversees it once out of the ground, exploration and claims are under the control of the province, where protesters have focussed much of their attention. Following the advice of Roger Young, who was a Liberal Member of Parliament in the 1970s, cottagers have sent hundreds of letters and e-mails to politicians who represent their home communities.
To quell controversy—not just in Haliburton and Frontenac but also over different conflicts elsewhere in Ontario—the provincial government has promised to amend the Mining Act. At the time of printing, it hadn’t tabled legislation, but in the fall of 2007, Premier Dalton McGuinty rejected a moratorium on uranium mining. Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines, Michael Gravelle, says, “The government has been clear that a moratorium on uranium exploration in Ontario will not be considered given future requirements not only for our nuclear capacity, but also for things like the production of radio¬isotopes which are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients.” Last fall, the province also facilitated an agreement between Frontenac Ventures and several aboriginal communities, ending a lawsuit that the company had brought against aboriginal protesters and allowing its exploration in eastern Ontario to proceed.
Without major changes to the Mining Act, uranium opponents face an uphill struggle, which they vow to continue. Roger Young will share his vision anywhere there’s an audience and a jar. Mining is slated to be on the agendas of this summer’s meetings of cottagers’ associations; Susanne Lauten and others plan to increase the flow of messages to polit¬icians, and she’s organizing a rally at the Ontario Legislature in late September.
“We have a really good thing here,” cottager Susan Fraser says. “We need to take a stand and protect it. We need to speak up.”
This article was originally published on May 14, 2009
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