Last time I looked at how the North Saskatchewan Environmental Quality Committee (NSEQC) is too close to industry to have any significant influence on protecting the North. Here I look at how the Athabasca Working Group (AWG) environmental monitoring program is also too close to industry and how this undercuts its scientific credibility and ability to reassure northerners that it continues to be safe to live off the land.
One of the main themes of the Keepers of the Water gathering at Wollaston Lake in August was the need to bring traditional land-based knowledge and critical environmental science closer together. Southern scientists and activists closely listened as many elders spoke passionately of this. Such a convergence can begin to occur when there is systematic community-based monitoring of the uranium industry. Some may say that there already is such monitoring, but after my recent trip to Wollaston I am not convinced.
IS “CAN-NORTH” INDEPENDENT?
CanNorth is promoted as “Canada North Environmental Services”. Operating since 1981 when the uranium boom started, it identifies itself as “A First Nations Company”. Its objectives however aren’t independent; it provides “cost-effective environmental services to mining development” and also “facilitates communication between government, mining development and aboriginal people”.
The Athabasca Working Group (AWG) which in 2000 initiated the program to monitor the uranium industry has both Cameco and Areva as “industrial partners”. While the AWG involves people from the seven communities closest to uranium mines, the communities don’t control the monitoring. It’s managed by CanNorth, and as its brochure says, “CanNorth has been involved in the design, implementation and environmental projects for numerous mining developments.”
CanNorth’s commitment to community participation and training aboriginal people may be something to build on. And I take it seriously when it says “The goal is to protect a remote living community with a proud history and to safeguard the wildlife that lives in the environment.” But environmental health monitoring should be done by people who don’t have the uranium industry as clients and partners. Otherwise the methods and results will remain suspect; the monitoring that occurs within this “conflict of interest” will be limited and open to industrial bias. We have to assume that CanNorth’s sampling methods are standardized over time and areas. However, how CanNorth interprets the results of its monitoring of water, air, fish, plants and animals is sometimes open to serious question.
THE 2008 REPORT ON WOLLASTON LAKE
CanNorth’s 2008 Report on Wollaston Lake gives levels of copper, lead, nickel, molybdenum, zinc, selenium, arsenic as well as uranium and radium 226. But how it constructs conclusions is questionable. It should compare the levels of these toxins from before and after uranium mines opened in the area. But, because no such baseline data was collected, it uses the method of comparing what it calls “effects” and “reference” communities.
It takes measures at Collins Bay and Hidden Bay, which are close to the Rabbit Lake uranium mine, along with measures from across the lake, at Welcome Bay, near the hamlet of Wollaston Post. These are considered communities where “effects” of uranium mining may show. It compares these measures to Fidler Bay, northwest of the hamlet, which it calls a “reference site because there is no influence from uranium mining.”
But it can’t say there is “no influence from uranium mining”. This disregards long-term bioaccumulation of toxins within the lake food chain. In all its reports it acknowledges that “It is important to sample sediment, because small animals that live in the sediment are often eaten by fish”. But it stops there. These toxin-carrying fish are eaten by humans, and the cumulating levels in humans also need to be measured. Over time it becomes deceptive to take one bay in the same aquatic system as a “control” area for this may just average out significant industrial impacts.
CanNorth downplays differences in toxin levels. Regarding sediment levels it says “In 2008, 2007, 2003 and 2002, the uranium levels in Hidden Bay were above the lowest level thought to have an effect on aquatic life.” But then it says “This guideline is important for small animals living in the sediment and is not a human health guideline”. This may be true, but measures from humans eating fish that feed from the sediment are required to address the matter of human health. It then continues “Hidden Bay is located a fair distance from the Wollaston Lake communities and the levels of these parameters were low in sediment from Welcome Bay, which is located near the communities.” This actually begs the question of whether fish affected by the higher levels in Hidden Bay are consumed across the lake. Then, almost as an afterthought, CanNorth admits “Treated effluent from Rabbit Lake mine is released upstream of Hidden Bay.”
CRITICAL ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
A more systematic approach would acknowledge that the levels of uranium are likely higher in Hidden Bay because they are downstream from where the uranium mine effluent is released. And lower levels of uranium in the sediment further from the mine, and nearer to the hamlet of Wollaston Lake, is not only to be expected but irrelevant to assessing the risk from uranium mining contaminants. Wollaston residents likely eat fish that feed across the lake in Hidden Bay. Fish that eat in Hidden Bay may be caught near Welcome Bay. Fish behavior and human consumption needs to be directly studied.
However, similar confusion is shown regarding toxic levels in fish. Its report says “In 2008, lake whitefish from Welcome, Hidden and Collins bays contained higher copper, selenium, and in the case of Collins Bay, arsenic, than the ‘reference’ site fish.” It also found higher copper levels for northern pike in these bays. However, it neutralizes these findings by then saying “In both fish species the 2008 levels were similar to or lower than ‘reference’ measurements recorded in previous years.” The report then says “This indicates that these levels are expected for the area” and draws the conclusion “…there are no obvious environmental or health concerns.” It makes unjustified leaps. CanNorth constantly reminds us that these toxins can “occur naturally”; however, without pre-uranium mine baselines they can’t say that these levels are expected. And without knowing fish behavior they can’t assume anything about how or where the fish digested these toxins. What matters is whether uranium mining is adding toxins to the environment, whether these are bio-accumulating within the food chain and present a short or long-term risk to wildlife and humans.
CanNorth’s monitoring is being done with its industrial partners to reassure local residents that it’s safe to drink the water, breath the air, catch fish, eat caribou and pick berries. However, without having baselines and measuring toxins throughout the whole food chain, including humans, not much can be said either way.
The North needs independent, community-based monitoring where local people keep standardized samples of fish and game which can be analyzed with the help of independent environmental scientists. Even if fish and game have “acceptable” province-set levels of toxins these can bio-accumulate over time in humans who rely on food from the land. We’ve seen how this happens elsewhere, e.g. with mercury contamination from pulp and paper mills in Northern Ontario. A revamping of the North’s environmental monitoring system will be impossible as long as the uranium industry continues to be a broker and the government goes along with this. At present there are “neo-colonial” relations between industry and northerners which compromise “environmental protection”. The North deserves better!