Uranium mining’s polluted legacy

We all have a responsibility to question the fall-out from uranium mining

Donna Dillman speaks at a rally protesting Bob Lovelace’s incarceration on Feb. 23.
Donna Dillman speaks at a rally protesting Bob Lovelace’s incarceration on Feb. 23.
Journal File Photo
Donna Dillman
Donna Dillman

Just an hour’s drive north of Kingston, 30,000 acres of private and crown land have been staked for uranium exploration, causing grave concern amongst both aboriginal and non-native communities.

Uranium exploration and mining in this area could contaminate the Mississippi River upstream of Ottawa. There’s also a risk of airborne contamination of population centres and agricultural lands, including in the Kingston area, from processing radioactive uranium ore products. More than one million people stand to be affected.

The initial concern is with the first exploratory hole drilled. The boreholes release much higher concentrations of radon gas into the air than does surface water. Both Health Canada and the U.S. Surgeon General have determined that radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking.

According to the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, residents of Elliot Lake, ON, home to more than a dozen uranium mines in the latter half of the 20th century, suffered 65 per cent higher than average cases of colorectal cancer among females, 128 per cent greater incidence of lung cancer among men and 68 per cent greater incidence of lung cancer among women. The study also found higher infant mortality rates and childhood leukemia.

The entire Serpent River system, near Elliott Lake, was devastated during those years. The tailings sites—piles of ground-up rock with 85 per cent of the radioactivity left behind—stretch for miles, rising 30 to 40 feet into the air. A 2006 federal environmental assessment delineated the challenges surrounding making these sites safe “in perpetuity.”

What kind of legacy does that leave for our grandchildren?

On June 28, 2007, the Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwaan First Nations moved to protect their ancestral lands north of Sharbot Lake. From their perspective, their identity as Algonquin people is embedded in the relationships they maintain with the natural world. That identity, developed over thousands of years, is the result of a historical process of relating with the land. Clearly, it must be maintained in a balanced way to ensure their survival as distinct people. Non-natives have much to learn from such traditions.

Last month, Queen’s professor and Ardoch elder Bob Lovelace was sentenced to six months in jail. He and Chief Paula Sherman, a Trent University professor, were handed heavy fines for their peaceful protest at the site.

The Ardoch First Nation was also fined and on March 18, two members of the Shabot Obaadjiwaan First Nation will appear in Kingston court for sentencing. Three non-natives are also scheduled to take the stand on contempt charges. Lives have been turned upside down in the fight to put people, community and the ecosystem ahead of profit and devastation.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

Non-native support of the First Nations struggle has made history. The Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU) is a grassroots organization formed in response to the proposed exploration. Through the coalition, many thousands of people have participated in marches, rallies, fundraisers, letter-writing campaigns and other actions. Kingston’s city council joined this fall, passing a resolution supporting the call for a moratorium.

To date, the Ontario government has ignored these resolutions and protests.

I started refusing food on Oct. 8 to raise public awareness around the uranium issue in eastern Ontario and to effect a moratorium. I resumed eating on Dec. 13 when several NGOs stepped up to the plate and called a citizens inquiry to look at the issue.

The inquiry’s intention is to allow people an opportunity to speak to issues including land claims, claim-staking, exploration, mining, processing, transportation, end uses and waste disposal.

Beginning on April 1 in Sharbot Lake, the inquiry will sponsor public forums throughout Eastern Ontario.

The challenge to ask questions about uranium mining is all of ours.

Queen’s is hosting an open forum discussing the proposed mining tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. in Ellis Auditorium. Speakers include representatives from the Ardoch Algonquin, Shabot Obaajiwan and Frontenac Ventures.

For more information about the citizens’ inquiry, go to uraniumcitizensinquiry.com or e-mail info@uraniumcitizensinquiry.com.

Donna Dillman is a Lanark resident protesting uranium mining in Sharbot Lake.

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