Northerners debate uranium mine and caribou effects

The area caribou harvest has been valued at $20 million a year

BAKER LAKE, Nunavut – Hilu Tagoona was just a girl the first time uranium miners proposed to develop a massive deposit of the radioactive metal near her home town of Baker Lake, Nunavut.

“I was about 11,” she says. “I spent many an hour listening to (presentations), spending time at the hearings.”

Now, at 37, she’s about to relive her childhood as final hearings begin Monday before the Nunavut Impact Review Board on a second proposal to eventually build a mine on the tundra. As a spokeswoman for the anti-uranium group Makitagunarningit, her opinion on it hasn’t changed.

“Our big concern is the caribou and their calving grounds.”

French nuclear giant Areva is proposing to build one underground and four open-pit mines just west of Baker Lake, on the edge of the calving grounds of one of the North’s great caribou herds and near the largest and most remote wildlife sanctuary on the continent.

The $2.1 billion project would provide at least 400 jobs, many reserved for local Inuit. Its annual payroll would be $200 million for at least 17 years.

Areva has been considering the project since at least 1997. Its current plans have been before the regulator since 2007.

“We believe we’ve got a very good environmental assessment,” said Areva spokesman Barry McCallum. “We’re looking forward to participating in the hearings.”

Areva’s plans would empty part of a lake, build a road through the habitat of a declining caribou herd and stretch a bridge across a Canadian heritage river. Planes loaded with radioactive concentrate would take off from its airstrip and barges with the same cargo would leave from its dock on Baker Lake.

The road and mill that it proposes would make it easier for other mines to open. Those deposits are on calving grounds for caribou that aboriginals in three provinces and two territories depend on.

At the very least, some protections should be created for the calving grounds in advance of any industrial development being approved for the area, said Tagoona.

“The construction of this mine will make it so much more feasible for other mines to open,” she said. “There are no proper protective measures at this point for caribou, or a plan in place.”

And critics worry about Areva’s acknowledgment that uranium prices are currently so low that it could be up to two decades before construction of the mine actually begins.

“They cannot approve this and wait 20 years,” said Tagoona. “That’s not reasonable whatsoever. Everything will have changed.”

The Kivalliq Wildlife Board, which manages wildlife in the region under the Nunavut Land Claim, says it’s “firmly opposed” to Kiggavik until protections for the calving ground are in place and Areva commits to a start date.

Ryan Barry, director of the review board, said it’s unusual for a company to admit they don’t plan to start an approved project anytime soon. But he suggested those concerns could be addressed by adding conditions forcing Areva to revisit parts of its environmental assessment if the delay is too long.

“There’s a lot you can do with recommendations,” he said. “There is the ability to put some restrictions in place.”

McCallum said Areva has been working with the community for years, opening an office in Baker Lake and flying residents to its uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan, where it has set up meetings with local aboriginals.

“I definitely think we’ve had some success,” he said. “Questions are answered honestly and openly.”

But there’s so much at stake. The area caribou harvest has been valued at $20 million a year, at a time when northerners are more concerned than every about high food prices.

And there are so many unknowns – the effects of the mine itself, the amount of development that follows along the road it builds, the state of the herds and the environment by the time the project actually begins.

Tagoona hopes that after the next two weeks of hearings that history will repeat itself.

“I have some recollection of the first fight and our success in that,” she said. “I think that this will be a never-ending battle, but if we stave it once again, that would be a success for us.”

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