Uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee?

August 29, 2014
Dr. Darlene Kitty

There are no uranium mining operations in Eeyou Istchee today, but that could change. Currently Quebec has placed a moratorium on uranium mining across the province. In order to decide whether to keep this moratorium or to allow mining companies to begin extracting uranium from deposits in Eeyou Istchee and other regions of Quebec, the province has launched a series of public hearings where people can present their questions and concerns about the potential impacts of uranium mining. 

The first round of hearings in Eeyou Istchee, hosted by the Quebec government’s Bureau d’audiences publique sur l’environnement (BAPE) and the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment, was held in June in Mistissini, Chisasibi and Chibougamau, and featured many Cree speakers, including representatives of the Cree Health Board. 

A second set of hearings inviting people to pose questions and acquire further information is being held on September 3-5 in Mistissini, with videoconference links to Chisasibi and Chibougamau. 

“We must consider the pros and cons of uranium mining,” says Chisasibi-based family physician Dr. Darlene Kitty. “Obviously, the advantages can include employment and money. The disadvantages are that uranium can be highly toxic and radioactive, and could impact the environment for thousands or millions of years – affecting waters, plants, trees, animals, and humans. To my mind, the disadvantages of uranium mining far outweigh its advantages. That is my position as a physician, and it is my position as a Cree person.” 

Uranium is used to generate electricity in nuclear power plants, as is also important in some medical radiation therapies. It is useful in this applications because it is an unstable element, meaning it decays to form other elements, a process that creates radiation. In this process, uranium is known as the “parent” element, while its decay products, such as radon, are called its “daughters.” Radiation is a natural phenomenon: in addition to receiving very low doses of radiation from minerals within the land, we also receive it (again, in very low levels) from the sun and stars. In nature, uranium’s decay is contained within bedrock, and radioactive emissions are weak. However, because mining brings uranium to the surface large quantities, it has the potential to create new and more easily accessible pathways for radioactive residue to spread in the environment. (It should be noted that the most dangerous and highly radioactive waste is not the product of uranium mining itself, but of the uranium, waste generated by nuclear power plants.)

When the Institute National de Santé Publique du Québec (INSPQ) set out to assess the potential health consequences of uranium mines for nearby communities several years ago, it examined all available reports. “But there have been few studies on the impact of uranium mining on nearby communities,” says Dr. Elizabeth Robinson, a public health physician with the Cree Health Board.  “The INSPQ’s overall conclusion was that findings were insufficient to say that living near mines would cause health problems. So there is no proven risk, but that doesn’t mean there is no risk.” One main concern is radon, one of uranium’s “daughters”; radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, and is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. “In the old uranium mines there was an excess of cancer deaths among miners due to radon emissions,” says Robinson. “But modern mines are well-ventilated and the dust is controlled, so the risk of lung cancer to miners is no longer excessive.” 

While uranium mining processes have improved greatly in recent decades, and companies have made efforts to ensure as much safety as possible, mining remains a risky business. Uranium mining waste – also known as tailings – pose a potential radiation danger, as the tailings will continue to produce radiation for hundreds of thousands of years. Further, Robinson points out, it isn’t entirely clear how mining sites will be maintained once the mine itself is shut down, and what impact other environmental changes – for instance, climate change – might have on the site. 

In addition, uranium’s chemical toxicity may present a larger immediate threat. Indeed, chemical toxicity is a risk uranium mining shares with other forms of mining, as shown by the environmental disaster that occurred at a copper and gold mine at Mount Polley in British Columbia on August 4th, when the reservoir holding the tailings burst, sending toxic waste, including 400 tons of arsenic in addition to other heavy metals, into the water system.  

“There is a perception in the community that uranium waste is dangerous and has a toxic legacy that will last for many thousands of years,” says Joelle Levesque, an environmental consultant working for the Grand Council of the Crees. “Radioactive material will remain in the tailings, and if there is a tailings breach there is no way the mining companies’ financial guarantees will make sure the land is cared for in perpetuity.” 

“We don’t own the land, we love the land,” observed an elder, through a translator, in the first round of hearings, and traditionally the Cree relationship to the land has been one of stewardship rather than exploitation. “The concept of ‘health’ is broader than the physical health concerns of individuals,” says Robinson. “Uranium mining has environmental impacts on animals, water, and soil, and these may also have an impact on human health. Taking a broad perspective, it is good for a community’s health if it has control over important things that affect it. If the Cree nation has control over its territories and its future, that will contribute to its health.” 

With the second round of hearings set to begin on September 3rd, members of the Cree nation will be able to ask questions and express their points of view.  “The important thing is that people make an informed choice,” says Darlene Kitty. “They have to advocate for their community, for their nation.”