Quebec was a paradise for the mining industry, with one of the most lax legislation found in this country. Confronted by the economic downturn, the Charest government had, during the recent elections, found a way to keep the province afloat with its much touted Plan Nord. Although still enshrouded in mystery one of its objectives was to boost mining. Nevertheless since the elections accusations against mining practices have tarnished the industry’s image in the province. It started with the opposition against the Osisko’s Malartic project that displaced some 200 households. That debate brought to light the cozy relationship between the industry and the government when one PQ representative was found to be a registered lobbyist for the company. It was followed by revelations that 14 mining companies have not paid royalties between 2002 and 2008 while extracting some $14 billion worth of minerals. This week 20 doctors from the town of Sept-Iles submitted their resignation in protest to the probable opening of a uranium mine in the region.
While the uranium project is only in the exploration phase, the government has issued road construction permits to Terra Ventures, a Vancouver based mining company. For the doctors this means that the exploitation is not far behind and the health impacts of such a project outweigh its benefits. Used primarily for nuclear power and nuclear weapons, uranium is toxic and radioactive. Its radioactivity needs to be managed for thousands of years. The dangers it poses for human health are multiple and present throughout its life cycle, from extraction to processing and its ultimate disposal. Cancers, especially pulmonary cancer, birth defects and organ failures are just a few. Although, currently there are no uranium mines in Quebec, Canada is the largest exporter of uranium ore in the world. In the 1980s the Medical Association of British Columbia released a study that led to a moratorium on uranium mining in the province.
The town of Sept-Iles had, in January this year, adopted a resolution to impose a moratorium on uranium mining in Quebec. On October 30th, in the middle of local election, the people took part in a second demonstration against the project. This week, the case has made its way to the National Assembly where accusations flew from both sides. The PQ deputy for Duplessis, Mrs. Richard had demanded a response from the PM regarding the resignation of the town’s 20 doctors. The Minister of Health and Social Services, Mr. Bolduc called the resignation “premature” since the project is only in exploration phase and “does not pose any health dangers”. As the debate got heated the Minister of Natural Resources, Mrs. Normandeau accused the citizens of the region of turning down the economic benefits presented to them and wondered whether the region should continue to benefit of the incentives offered by the government. This incited a rebuke from the PQ parliamentary leader, Mr. Bedard, who accused Mr. Normandeau of blackmail and putting the public at risk in exchange of economic development.
The case of Sept-Iles is exemplary of the larger debate surrounding the environmental and social impacts of mining and other large resource development projects. The legislative role of the government and its duty to protect the public from such impacts has always been a point of contention. Following the many mining opposition campaigns throughout Quebec, the government has submitted a new legislative bill regarding decommissioning. Moreover faced with $300 million bill for restoration of old mining sites, the government is planning to increase the guarantees of decommissioning from mining companies from 70% to 100%. It has also reduced the reimbursement form 15 years to 5 years following the closure of the mine, with a 10% penalty for failure to comply. The government also plans to introduce a new bill in the spring of 2010 that would increase the royalties paid to the government.
Rivers Foundation was in Sept-Iles last week to meet and support the local coalition against uranium mining, Sept-Iles Sans Unranium. You can watch the video here