Thanks to the hard work of our employees and the collaboration of our many partners, we have successfully implemented many different programs, ranging from the training of Crees for skilled jobs with Hydro-Quebec (over 50 Crees now occupy permanent positions), the rejuvenation of Cree community and family fisheries, the support of numerous cultural activities including summer gatherings and the enhancement of goose hunting facilities. This is not to mention the hundreds of kilometres of snowmobile and ATV trails already built throughout Eeyou Istchee.
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Uranium and Contamination
MiningWatch weighs in on Strateco’s Matoush project and the impact it could have on the region
While Strateco’s PR machine for the Matoush project is telling the Crees that the benefits from the uranium exploration project and eventual mine have boundless benefits and is practically imprintless, not everyone is on board with their ideology.
While just weeks ago, Strateco’s CEO and President Guy Hébert told the Nation that their mineral exploration project for the purposes of an eventual mine would have “no environmental impact.”
This interview happened just prior to the release of their approximately 8000-page environmental impact assessment (EIA). At the time, Hébert made a lot of promises and allegations.
Not only did he say that this project would stand to clean up existing uranium in the nearby waterways that has occurred from natural erosion of the rocks on the Otish Mountains that are laden with it, he made various other seemingly impossible claims.
According to Hébert, Strateco’s project has promised to do very little, if no, damage to the wildlife in the vicinity, that there is no risk of any further uranium or radon contamination in the ecosystem and that many residents from Mistissini fully supported the project.
Despite making these claims, Hébert never had the support of the Grand Chief or the Grand Council as he had told the Nation, nor did he have the support of Mistissini Chief John Longchap and it is unlikely that he had the support of many of the community’s Elders.
Keeping this in mind, the Nation went back to speak to MiningWatch, a non-profit group that fights for communities, Aboriginal groups, environment and social justice in relation to Canadian mining operations.
MiningWatch’s Canada Program Coordinator Ramsey Heart had a great deal to say about the current phase of the uranium exploration project and the potential mine that could open if it is not stopped by the public.
Heart admitted however, that at the time of the interview, he had not had the opportunity to read the entire EIA as at 8000 pages it would take a lengthy amount of time for anyone to get through. He did however spend some time with it.
Off the bat, one of the most peculiar things he found in it was that rather than using actual Cree references to discuss the concerns of the Crees, the report instead detailed information from Statistics Canada.
In terms of the project having no environmental impact, Heart stated that the claim was totally impossible. Even the access road that Strateco wants to build to the project will have a significant environmental impact, particularly as Strateco wants to use waste rock to build it.
Though he had not gotten into the specific geology in the report for the road project, he said there is certainly the potential for toxicity and this was certainly an area for concern.
“Uranium is a fairly ubiquitous mineral and the deposits are not just going to end at a line. They are going to have to be doing a lot of testing of that rock as they bring it out and we want to know what kind of monitoring they use because there is a tremendous amount of risk if the monitoring isn’t done very carefully of rocks containing uranium getting out into the environment,” said Heart.
Since the release of the EIA, Strateco will have to return to Mistissini for another public meeting to discuss the current phase of the project and get the approval of the community before they can go ahead with drilling their exploration ramp. They are expected to do so by mid-January, though a date has yet to be announced. If possible, MiningWatch would also like to be onsite for the event.
Though Hébert made claims that there would be no potential for any of the uranium-contaminated dust generated from the project getting into the environment because the entire project would be underground, Heart also said that this was impossible.
If Strateco has to drill and blast to get underground to build the ramp, there will be fallout from this because not all of the dust can be contained. Furthermore, the potential for toxic radon gas release is inevitable.
Were the project go from an exploration phase to a full-blown uranium mine, there is certainly a potential for contamination from it, hands down.
“The ore is going to be brought to the surface somehow and the waste will have to be stored somewhere. You can’t backfill while you are still active in the mine. If you have ever seen a tailings impoundment, they are huge. There is not one that is structurally covered that I know of anywhere,” said Heart.
A major concern for the community of Mistissini would be whether there is any potential for contamination from the project to get into Lake Mistissini or other nearby waterways that flow into it.
While Heart said that it shouldn’t happen, it still could as he has seen cases where uranium mines have contaminated entire watersheds.
While the Otish Mountains, where the project is situated, are located approximately 220km from Mistissini, the water in the area connects to 40km downstream to Temiskamie River, which flows about 130km to Lake Albanel and that flows into Lake Mistissini.
While some kind of catastrophic event at the site, such as a major accident or a tailings impoundment breaking, could lead to major fallout that would contaminate those waters, in the current phase of the project Heart said that is not a major danger.
The problem is that uranium-mining operations require large tailings pools and they do break as was the case in Chapais not too long ago.
Hébert also had made claim that the Matoush project would have practically no imprint on the local waterways because of the kind of filtration system that the project would be using which would see a reduction in the water’s uranium levels. Though the water in the surrounding area already contains uranium from natural erosion, he said that the water the mine would be putting back into the environment would have 100 times less uranium upon its re-release into the environment.
Heart however argued this point on the simple basis that this water would be blending back in with the existing surface water which would also be exposed to any of the uranium dust or radon gas produced from various stages of the production.
What Heart said should really be on the minds of Mistissini residents is whether they really want this kind of a project because it is only offering a decade worth of economic activity in exchange a portion of Cree territory.
“They are going to leave the wastes on site in perpetuity so basically we are talking about sacrificing a piece of territory for the foreseeable future to haul out uranium which could be used for nuclear generation and potentially find its way into depleted uranium weapons,” said Heart.
Strateco’s major selling point for the project is that they could create up to 300 jobs in the region should the actual mine happen. While this could be seen as a positive thing, Heart said that the impacts of this kind of economic boon do not always have a positive effect on a community.
According to Heart, it is well documented that the types of income associated with mining in remote communities leads to drug and alcohol problems. The access to quick cash for people who have not had it before drastically changes their lifestyles and they tend to spend the money very quickly. There have been reports of increases in HIV infection rates in the communities that move quickly into a mining economy.
These mine workers will also be taking on jobs in these mines at an increased risk to their health due to the highly documented instances of diseases, such as lung cancer and many other cancers that are common amongst uranium mine workers.
Taking all of the health risks into account that are associated with working in or even living near a uranium mining facility, the community of Sept-Iles recently made headlines when 20 doctors from their community quit their jobs in protest.
The Lac Kachwiss project is less than 20km from Sept-Iles and only 7km to the town's drinking-water supply. Many of these doctors are planning on leaving the community and even the province due to the health threats the mine poses to themselves, their families and the community.
While a majority of the town’s residents oppose the project as does a nearby Innu community who could also stand to be affected, the Quebec government resisted the calls for a moratorium on uranium mining in the province.
While the Lac Kachwiss project meets all of the provincial standards, it will still pollute and contaminate the water with cancer-causing radioactive dust.
As for the Crees, should there be a desire to halt the Matoush project, there is still that potential because the project is on Category 3 lands, but timeliness is a factor.
“If there are significant concerns from the Cree about this then they need to have this discussion now as opposed to later. The further down the road these projects get, the more they gain momentum and political support behind them and then a lot of money is spent. When this happens, it becomes harder and harder to address the issues,” said Heart.