August 2014

Quebec’s uranium unease

Strateco suspends project, public review puts local industry in doubt

By Herb Mathisen

Spending $1.5 million annually to do nothing does not make sense. That was the thinking behind Strateco’s June 12 announcement to shut down its Matoush uranium camp and focus attention on its Saskatchewan properties.

CEO Guy Hébert said the decision was made to cut costs at the stalled Quebec project after years of wrangling with the provincial government. The company, which Hébert said has spent roughly $123 million to explore, develop and permit its Matoush project since 2006, had its exploration program approved by the federal government in February 2012, but found out in March 2013 that the province was putting a moratorium on uranium exploration and mining until a comprehensive public review was completed by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE). The review, which only started this spring, is slated to wrap up in May 2015, with its findings published no later than July 2015.

“We don’t know what that means for us,” said Hébert, alluding to the fact that before the review even began, then Parti-Québécois environment minister Yves-Francois Blanchet announced the government would deny Strateco a final exploration permit, based on the project’s lack of sufficient social acceptability – namely, the Cree Nation of Mistissini’s opposition. Strateco has since taken the government to court over this refusal, calling the minister’s decision “illegal.” “First of all, social acceptance is not defined anywhere in any law,” said Hébert. “Secondly, what is ‘sufficient?’”

Early on, the project had local approval and some in the community still support it, Hébert said, but when the Mistissini’s leadership changed, so did its stance on Matoush. According to Hébert, the company is ultimately hoping to have the minister’s decision overturned. Failing that, he said Strateco would be seeking compensation.

Like the Matoush project, the future of Quebec’s entire uranium industry is far from certain. The PQ government had called for the uranium BAPE after mounting opposition from First Nations and civil groups. In August 2012, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) declared a permanent moratorium on uranium exploration and mining on its land.

Educational or inflammatory?

BAPE will carry out the public review in three phases. The first is a pre-consultation, where the panel meets with community members and organizations across the province to figure out what the issues are. Once that is complete, a question and answer session with experts will be held in communities in September, followed by a final presentation session next spring. The review’s mandate is to look at potential issues, “identifying through consultation the challenges of uranium exploration and exploitation,” according to Louise Bourdages, BAPE spokesperson.

Josée Méthot, president and CEO of the Association Minière du Québec, said her organization could support such a review if BAPE was investigating how Quebec should go about exploring and exploiting uranium, but not if it becomes a referendum on whether it should or not.

But Jean-Marc Lulin, president and CEO of Azimut Exploration, is concerned that BAPE will be just that. “I’m not against the BAPE itself. Of course, it is critical for public acceptance. The problem with this specific BAPE is it will cover the overall uranium industry, not related to a specific project,” he said, adding most of the questions being addressed by such a general review can largely be found in public documents available. “I think for this reason it is more likely an ideological debate, than a rational debate regarding the industry,” he said.

Lulin has been retained by BAPE as an industry expert for this review to answer questions. He hoped it would educate Quebecers about the industry, pointing out how Saskatchewan residents are highly educated about uranium and, he said, supportive of it. “In Quebec, by contrast, the population is unaware of the uranium industry and they are against the uranium industry without knowing it,” he said. “It’s a problem.”

Cree Nation concerns

Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Cree Nation, said the Cree Nation undertook its own review of uranium development prior to declaring its moratorium. “The Cree did not start off opposed to uranium mining,” he told CIM Magazine. “We are open to responsible mining in our territory. However, Strateco’s Matoush project forced us to confront the issue because Strateco, we believe, refused to give us the information regarding the risks associated with uranium development, so we sought the information elsewhere.”

The review, which Coon Come said included input from industry experts, found that there were uncertainties with storage, containment and communication of risks associated with uranium waste. “We learned that there are serious risks that could have catastrophic effects if they materialize,” he said. “We Crees have lived on and relied on this land since time immemorial and I believe we have the responsibility to protect the land for generations that will come after us.”

Coon Come welcomes the public review and its intent to get input from citizens, even if he said BAPE does not have jurisdiction over Cree territory. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement provides for a unique environmental and social protection regime with special participation of the Cree. But the Cree Nation, he said, will argue against uranium development at the BAPE review. “We believe that if this environmental review process is conducted properly, the issues and risks are thoroughly discussed and considered, Quebecers as a whole will join with the Cree Nation and reject uranium development activities in the province of Quebec,” he said.

Not all northern organizations are closing the door on uranium mining, though. Makivik Corporation, which protects the legal and financial interests of Quebec’s Inuit, will participate in BAPE consultations “before producing a final brief stating a position towards uranium,” according to mining coordinator Jean-Marc Séguin.

Still, Strateco’s Hébert said the government’s actions have investors furious: “Until this thing is clean and clear, it will be very hard to restore the Plan Nord for smaller companies.

“This project has very badly hurt the credibility of Quebec.”

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