News | Sept-Îles residents challenge uranium exploration project

Doctors threaten to resign in protest as fears of health risks grow

A fter a year of sporadic protests from local doctors and ordinary citizens, the uranium exploration near Sept-Îles, in northeastern Quebec, appears likely to end. The mayor of Sept-Îles, Serge Levesque, said on December 16 that the contract British Columbia mining company Terra Ventures had with the province of Quebec to explore for uranium in the area was unlikely to be renewed after it expires in February.

Opposition to the uranium project stems from fears of health risks to the local population. The mining site lies just 13 kilometres from a major water source for Sept-Îles and many local doctors are in staunch opposition to the project. Twenty-three doctors at the Sept-Îles hospital have pledged to resign and leave the region in protest since early December, and some of them have pledged to leave Quebec entirely, unless the National Assembly declares a province-wide moratorium on uranium mining.

Moreover, a poll released January 4 showed that 91 per cent of Sept-Îles inhabitants are still opposed to the floundering uranium project. 71 per cent of respondents are convinced that uranium mining presents health risks for people in the area.

Broad public opposition has been confirmed by occasional protests in Sept-Îles this past year.

The largest protest to date took place on December 13, when 1,200 inhabitants marched in the streets, opposing Terra Ventures and supporting the resignation of their doctors.

A turning point seems to have come on December 11, when the doctors threatening to resign met with two high-level public health officials, Alan Poirier, national director of public health, and Raymond Cloutier, public health director for Côte-Nord, to discuss the health risks presented by uranium exploration. They agreed to revise the government’s position, established in early 2009, that the exploration at Lac Kachiwiss was completely safe.

After the meetings, La Presse reported that Poirier said, “We have to evaluate…all the risk factors. We understand the concerns of the doctors.”

Two of the protesting doctors, Bruno Imbeault and Isabelle Gingras, said they felt their message had been well received by the officials.

Meanwhile, some government ministries continue to state that there are no health risks attached to uranium exploration.

Jacques Roi, the press secretary to Minister of Natural Resources and Wildlife Serge Simard, criticized the doctors on Friday, saying the purported health risks were based on a report that used data from between 1932 and 1980. Minister of Health Yves Bolduc has maintained that the uranium exploration is completely safe.

Also on December 11, Terra Ventures issued a press release signed by President Gunther Roeling, indicating an indefinite break in operations at Lac Kachiwiss.

On December 15, Serge Simard said that he had spoken with Terra Ventures and told them that “social acceptability” would be an important factor in the continuation of their Lac Kachiwiss site. Simard admitted that the people of Sept-Îles were clearly opposed to the uranium project.

In a meeting with Levesque, Simard reassured the mayor of Sept-Îles that Terra Ventures would have a difficult time proceeding at the nearby site. “We have every reason to believe the project will not continue,” said Levesque, after the meeting.

The Terra Ventures press release said, “construction work has ceased on the access route to the property,” a route that had been in construction until early December.

The release also explained that until a planned corporate reorganization, “no exploration plans will be formulated for any of its wholly-owned properties.”

Jacques Roi indicated that this “subtle” wording meant the company would not apply for a renewal of its government permit until the corporate restructuring was finished. There was no mention in the release of the public protests in Sept-Îles or the opposition of local doctors.

In casting doubts on the Lac Kachiwiss uranium exploration, Simard cited pending legislation to be debated in the National Assembly this spring, that will apply more stringent regulations on mining in Quebec.

Mr. Simard’s office notes that the new law will “leave a lot of place for communities to decide for themselves,” whether mining developments appear in their areas.

The minister’s press secretary, Roi, would not comment on the specifics of the bill. He said that the events surrounding Sept-Îles would not significantly factor into the creation of the mining law. La Presse reported on December 19 that Sept-Îles does, however, intend to participate in the bill’s creation.