The First in a Two-Part Series on How Environmental Protection is Being Compromised in the North
The North Saskatchewan Environmental Quality Committee, or NSEQC, was started in 1995 to help bridge (the) information gap between northerners, government and the uranium mining industry. It assumes that by talking and learning together all participants help ensure that uranium mining activity takes place in an environmentally responsible manner Bill Hutchinson, the Minister responsible, says it is promoting trust and understanding among communities, the uranium mining industry and the government regulators.
The key question is how NSEQC works and whether it has any major impact on what companies do. It’s good that it’s decentralized into three Environmental Quality Committees (EQCs), one each from Athabasca, the West Side and South Central area, but it’s not independent from the uranium industry or the government which promotes it. It’s administrated by the Northern Mines Monitoring Secretariat and has staff representation from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) whose independent regulatory status was compromised when Prime Minister Harper removed its head for trying to ensure the safety of the Chalk River nuclear plant. And the uranium companies Cameco and Areva provide NSEQC technical expertise, arranging and hosting mine site visits and various workshops. The viewpoints presented by company experts can hardly be considered balanced. The North deserves better!
INDUSTRY BIAS DOMINATES
NSEQC boasts 14 years of successfully providing northerners a voice in uranium mining, but it’s a voice without regulatory authority, and no real power of its own. NSEQC claims it creates critical communications between our communities and uranium industry activities, but in practice does this mean that companies use NSQEC meetings and reports to promote the nuclear industry? Does it mean that northerners communicate or even complain while industry carries on with its contaminating business ventures?
A close look at NSEQC’s 2009 Report to Communities helps answer these questions and is also a bird’s eye view of what’s going on at uranium mines in the North. In November 2009 the industry-based Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) presented to all three EQCs. NSEQC reports this as the NWMO ‘making communities aware of opportunities to host a nuclear waste management storage site. It goes on, There will be incredible economic benefits to such a community, but suitable geology and accessibility are also factors. This shows the nuclear promotional role of what is said to be an environmental protection body. It is all slightly Orwellian.
About the Cigar Lake Flooding the report says, When excavating equipment inadvertently broke through the roof into the sandstone, the water naturally moved to its lowest point. Later it admits Water is proving to be a major problem at Cigar Lake, but it never discusses the role that Cameco’s rush to get this profitable high-grade ore onto the market may have played in the flooding. It treats the flooding innocuously: The water is kept out by a clay envelope around the ore and a barrier of very strong basement rock. It was a breach of this barrier that caused the mine to flood in 2006. Another section on How Cigar Lake was Dewatered acknowledges that in 2008 the mine flooded again when clays which were sealing areas on the higher 420 level dissolved and washed out after being submerged in the first inflow. You get the feeling that the clay, not Cameco’s excavation, is to blame. It continues, The decision was made to seal off the 420 level completely. This was done by lowering empty grout bags then inflating them and filling them with grout (thin concrete), all described in amoral engineering terms.
The Report goes on, In Stony Rapids elders and the public raised many other issues, which did not directly pertain to this project. But the issues aren’t mentioned. It continues: In Saskatoon, with a smaller and more experienced audience the workshop went into much more technical detail. There is paternalism expressed here and apparently holding meetings in Saskatoon, where Cameco and Areva officials are headquartered, is more to the liking of NSEQC bureaucrats.
An EQC expressed concern about Cameco’s plan to discharge Cigar Lake mine water into Seru Bay ‘an arm of Waterbury Lake, since this lake is one of the prime trout fishing lakes in the province. Company consultants replied fish from Seru Bay would be safe to eat, although fishing would be discouraged for safety reasons. In winter, the diffuser could cause dangerously thin ice conditions. This semantic twist still means fishing will be detrimentally affected.
COMMUNITY CONCERNS DISMISSED
EQC members have real concerns. South Central reps again pressed the company (at Key Lake) to move the above-ground tailings into a pit, either by physically moving it or by re-milling it. The Cameco rep simply replied that re-milling is not practical, and that new space would have to be created . Cameco then reported they wanted to increase the space in the Dielmann pit to take all tailings from McArthur River ore. The ongoing sloughing of sand into that pit, which Minewatch estimates at one million cubic metres so far, is not seriously addressed.
The McArthur River report mentions control of molybdenum and selenium discharged in effluent, and handling of spills (only one so far this year). Only one so far! It adds More than 150 million pounds of ore slurry has (sic) been transported to Key Lake since 2000 which is described as the equivalent of 40,000 truckloads and six million km travelled. This shows the staggering scale of the uranium industry’s impact on the North. The report acknowledges Concern about a proposed ore haul over public roads from McArthur River to McClean Lake by Arevea. Concerns are raised and the companies carry on.
We discover mishaps not reported in the southern press. The Rabbit Lake mine report says, In January seepage of gypsum and uranium liquid was discovered during excavation for a new pH clarifier. The entire mill floor has to be sealed with resin to contain any future leakage that may occur, and recovery wells installed. The assumption seems to be that informing northerners of some incidents will normalize them, remove the element of surprise and lessen public criticism. This process might even create a psychological sense of responsibility among the northerners privy to these details. It is also certain that companies are selective about what they tell the EQCs.
The McClean Lake report mentions There were a number of accidental releases at the site . An Areva official was asked about the possibility of building a 52 km road link between McArthur River and Cigar Lake, but replied this would take at least two years and the preference was to haul the ore over public highways, 920 km each way. The EQC stated concerns about safety when hauling slurry on public highways, and that the original proposal for two trucks a day in each direction had doubled. The concern was expressed, but to no avail.
The Cluff Lake report reads, Asked why the waste rock was not placed into the pits, Areva’s (official) explained that there was too much volume for the capacity of the pits The possibility of this occurring was dismissed was by industry during the Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry (CLBI) in 1978. But that was then, and this is now!
The report on Cameco’s new Millenium mine says Cameco would plan to mill the ore at Key Lake, minimizing the environmental footprint at the Millenium site. The environmental footprint will of course greatly enlarge at, and from the massive trucking to, Key Lake. Cameco officials explained mine water would be discharged into nearby Moon Lake. The EQC suggested it go back into Slush Lake instead, since Moon Lake is a good fishing lake. Showing where the power lies, Cameco simply replied it will address this option in the EA process.
The report on the Beaverlodge mine, closed in 1982, admits When the mines were operating, environmental standards were non-existent. Tailings went directly into lakes. The first water treatment systems were introduced in the mid-1970s. And while the local residents were never involved in the decision to go ahead with this mine, used for nuclear weapons, they are now belatedly involved in creating remediation scenarios. There is something cynical about taking some responsibility for remediation when you had no part in the contamination; participation should come before not after such consequential events. Meanwhile nearly 30 years later uranium mines continue on without upholding any duty to consult.
NORTHERN CANCER RATES HIGHER
Similar admissions were made about the Gunnar mine which closed in 1964: Tailings were pumped over a hill into nearby Mudford Lake. When the site was abandoned, the operator just walked away, leaving everything as it was. Other concerns include a 110-metre deep flooded pit which is seeping into Lake Athabasca; a 2.7 million cubic metre waste rock pile containing other assorted industrial waste; and 4.4 million tonnes of tailings close to, or draining into, or in, the water of Langley Bay in Lake Athabasca. It notes that some areas have gamma radiation readings such that they will have to be covered. Regarding the closed Lorado uranium mill the report says It drains into Nero Lake, which is very acidic because of tailings beside and under the lake. The lasting legacy of uranium mining will clearly not be jobs but radioactive tailings.
The section on Factors Affecting Northern Health acknowledges what many Wollaston elders fear: that Overall cancers exceed the provincial rate; our lung cancer rate is the highest in the province. Bowel and breast cancer rates now equal the south; cervical cancer, while high, is decreasing. This should be cause for concern and further reason for baseline and thorough epidemiological studies. But rather than affirming the need for this, NSEQCs report says health authorities and other scientists have concluded that there is no additional risk of cancers to a person working at a mine today. In fact, a prefeasibility study concluded there was no sense doing a study of modern miners, since radiation doses are so low. This matter is far from pat: if you don’t look you can’t find out. The build-up of radioactive tailings will be a burden for the North long after the mines close.
Community reps have deep concerns about the cumulative ecological mess being made by the uranium industry. Meanwhile, at NSEQC meetings company officials promote their industry without independent information being available to northerners. This is ‘consultation’ with loaded dice and the North deserves better.
In Part Two I explore how the industry influences vital environmental monitoring in the North.