Will uranium mining ruin cottage country?
A primer on mining's history & its effects on our favourite getaways
Picture yourself on a sultry July evening,” Roger Young tells fellow property owners at a joint meeting of the Glamor Lake and Little Glamor Lake cottagers’ associations. “You’re on your deck. The air’s finally freshening after a swampy day. Stars are twinkling and loons call. Maybe you’ve got a cold beer at hand.”
Then, he shifts his tone: “There’s noise from the east end of the lake—banging and grinding from a rock crusher; the snorting of giant earthmovers. You look toward it: That open-pit mine people talked about? Well, it’s in business.”
After Young’s talk, a jar at his side fills with $5, $10, and $20 bills. The contributions are in response to what he’s described: Three mining companies have staked claims to thousands of hectares in this region of forest, rocks, and lakes, two and a half hours northeast of Toronto.
And with these donations, the new battle over uranium exploration in Ontario’s Haliburton cottage country is joined.
A history of mining in cottage country
Geologists first discovered uranium in Haliburton in 1922; work began on the initial mine, known as Bicroft, 31 years later. Three others soon followed. Between 1956 and 1982, almost 7,000 tonnes of uranium oxide, or “yellowcake,” was extracted from the four mines. Local people welcomed those mines, which brought hundreds of jobs to the poor, thinly populated area. The main centre, Bancroft, in next-door Hastings County, proudly proclaimed itself the “Mineral Capital of Canada.”
As the mines’ brief heyday ended in the mid-1960s, a cottage boom began. First in a trickle, then in a flood, city dwellers erected ¬summer retreats on Haliburton’s 65 pristine lakes. The cottagers, in summer now vastly outnumbering the permanent population of about 16,000, came to escape work and industry and prized the area’s natural beauty. So the new mining companies—Bancroft Uranium of Scottsdale, Ariz., and El Niño Ventures and Abitibi Mining, both based in Vancouver—entered a radically altered landscape when, four years ago, with uranium prices soaring amid worldwide plans for nuclear power plants, they arrived to resurrect the industry.
Their activity caused little stir until the spring of 2007, when Roger Young’s friends Robin Simpson and Christine Atrill, hiking their picturesque 40 hectares, stumbled across claim stakes. Taking advantage of the “free entry” provision of Ontario’s Mining Act—similar to laws in every province and territory—a prospector had entered the private property, unannounced, and carved it into 16-hectare claim blocks. Simpson, a full-time resident, grew enraged as he researched the situation. He established the group Fight Uranium Mining and Exploration (FUME) to warn others about the threat to their tranquility, health, environment, and property rights. Largely funded by the contribution jars, FUME became the spearhead of growing opposition. It now has more than 1,000 members; others are entering the fray through the increasing involvement of cottagers’ associations. A similar battle, involving mainly full-time residents and aboriginal groups, is underway in Frontenac and Lanark counties, southeast of Haliburton. The main lobby group there, the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium, won moratorium endorsements from local councils as well as those in nearby Kingston and Ottawa.
The fuel for the campaign is Haliburton’s second identity, forged in the last half of the 20th century. The area is no longer either remote or wilderness. The lake-filled region boasts more than 14,000 recreational homes, and villages with city-size supermarkets, cute cafés, and weekend traffic jams dot the landscape. Despite a growing “quaintification,” though, the area is a vacation gem, where many have made substantial financial and emotional investments.
“Our soul resides at the cottage,” says Susanne Lauten, who with her husband has owned an island retreat on Gull Lake since 1996. “We work in the city so that we can afford to go there. Our whole future is in it.” Lauten recently launched her own group, Cottagers Against Uranium Mining and Exploration. In talking to fellow cottagers about the cause, she found everyone was keen on learning more and cottagers are becoming increasingly engaged. “Every time I talk to someone, they open another door,” she says. “We’ve got some crazy momentum.”
As the opposition has gained steam, the mining companies have lost some. While exploration goes on in the region (for instance, a new find in east Bancroft was announced in late February by Frontenac Ventures), this past winter, as uranium prices plummeted, the companies with claims in Haliburton put their plans on hold. “We’re waiting on better times,” says El Niño president Jean Luc Roy. Abitibi is focussing on gold exploration elsewhere and has no plans for these claims, according to Kevin Hull, in investor relations for the company, who adds, “I don’t know if those properties will ever be mined.” Bancroft Uranium didn’t respond to interview requests and has not updated its website since last October. Regardless of the breathing space, the sense of urgency hasn’t been lost. “The dragon is sleeping for the moment,” Young says, “but it could be reawakened at any time.”
Young, who built on Little Glamor Lake five years ago, started researching uranium mining in earnest when, in 2007, he first heard rumours about prospecting and exploring in the area and learned about Robin Simpson’s situation. They and other critics offer three main objections to mining. Their first issue is with the “free entry” right, which they view as an attack on their property rights. Second are the environmental, health, and economic impacts of mining in general, uranium in particular, whether on private or Crown land. Third is the limited ability of municipalities to control mining through their official plans.
Under free entry, prospectors have the right to stake claims.
And claim-holders may do exploration work unimpeded for as long as they maintain their claim, on Crown land or on most of the private properties whose owners don’t control the underground mineral rights. To show what exploration looks like, Simpson takes visitors to Crown land near his home. In early 2008, a Bancroft Uranium crew scraped to bedrock 20 hectares of forest; dug trenches 15 to 18 metres long, up to almost 10 metres deep, and about as wide; cut channels along surface rocks; and drilled for ore samples. The scars, plus uprooted trees, piles of earth and rock, and dozens of fluorescent pink ribbons, have effectively disfigured the land.
The Mining Act grants prospectors the legal right to do this, so Simpson couldn’t stop such activity on his land nor can he repair any damage, as long as the claim-holder maintains a permit. It’s too late for him, but others could, in theory, stake their own properties. They’d have to obtain a $25 prospector’s licence, follow detailed staking rules, and conduct at least $400 worth of work annually on each claim. While mining recorders at Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines probably won’t ask outright whether a claim is intended to block mining, claim-holders have to do more than just look at the rocks at the surface; if they don’t undertake drill tests, they have to forfeit their claim.
Admittedly, free entry directly affects few people. Across southern Ontario, more than 98 per cent of property owners—virtually everyone in developed areas—control their mineral rights. Likely, those on relatively small cottage lots won’t find prospectors pounding stakes between deck and dock. Most claims are on Crown land. Still, the examples strike a deep, angry chord, says Paul MacInnes, who cottaged in Haliburton for 35 years, is now a permanent resident, and heads the Maple, Beech, and Cameron Lakes Area Property Owners’ Association. “As you start to hear more and more stories of property owners who arrive at their cottage to find it’s been staked and test holes drilled, you can see that they feel that their land has been violated.”
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.”
Resources and Links
Penny's Blog - details about an overhaul to the Ontario Mining Act and the January 15, 2009 deadline to make your voice heard.
Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines www.mndm.gov.on.ca
Ontario Mining Act www.mndm.gov.on.ca
Service Ontario's Mineral Exploration and Mining Information Ontario www.gov.on.ca
Cottagers against Uranium Mining and Exploration (CUME)
Fight Uranium Mining and Exploration (FUME) www.fighturanium.com
Ontario Mining Association www.oma.on.ca
The Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium www.ccamu.ca
Mining Watch Canada www.miningwatch.ca
Bedford Mining Alert (South Frontenac Township) www.bedfordminingalert.ca
Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayaking Association - article on threats to waterways by mining operations
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper www.waterkeeper.ca
This article was originally published on May 14, 2009