Uranium Mining: Hearings into Dangers Needed  

                                                                                                                                                         David Orton
    (This article printed in The Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia, August 24, 1981)

    (Editor’s note: The author, a Halifax resident, has been concerned about environmental issues for some time and is at present involved in a movement to study further the effects of uranium mining.)

    The government of Nova Scotia announced in the legislature last April 3 the membership of an all-party special select committee, formed to investigate all scientific and technical information related to the protection of workers, the public and the environment associated with the uranium mining cycle, and in particular the relevance of this data to potential uranium mining environments in Nova Scotia, to receive public input on these matters and to allow the opportunity for meaningful public review of all aspects of the investigation, and to determine terms and conditions, submission requirements and approval procedures to be established as provincial regulations, prior to any evaluation of applications for leases to mine uranium, to ensure that if approved mining will be conducted under acceptable standards of worker and public safety, and the protection of the environment.

    On Feb. 21, 1981, the Maritime Energy Coalition (MEC), meeting in Moncton, unanimously passed the following resolution:

“That this meeting demands the setting up of public judicial inquiries into uranium mining in N.S., N.B., and P.E.I.; and stopping all exploratory and mining activity which disturbs uranium ores.”

    A number of organizations have endorsed all or part of the MEC resolution. A public debate over the question of uranium mining is under way in this province. The provincial government’s response to the increasing public discussion on uranium mining has been the formation of the special select committee.

    What attitude should individuals and organizations who oppose uranium mining take towards this committee? The answer to this question will be crucial for the anti-uranium movement in Nova Scotia. In the committee’s stated terms of reference is no mention of uranium exploration. Large scale exploratory activities involving millions of acres have gone on since 1975 and, from the provincial government’s perspective, are apparently free to continue while the select committee deliberates.

    As is well known, uranium exploration can include disruptive activities which disturb uranium ores. Activities such as road building, trenching, drilling, stripping, sinking shafts, sample handling, disposal and storage of radioactive material, can all be included in uranium exploration. The public in Nova Scotia has not been informed of background levels of radiation prior to and after disruptive exploratory activities. Contamination of previously uncontaminated surface or groundwater can occur. Naturally occurring uranium contamination of groundwater is already a problem in certain areas of the province, such as Harrietsfield.

    Following recent public criticism of the exploration “guidelines” concerning uranium, by the MEC, Liberal leader Sandy Cameron, speaking in Chester, stated that uranium exploration has resulted in contamination of the drinking water supply in at least one community in N.S. (information based on results of tests done by the provincial government, known to Cameron), and that exploratory activities pose a threat to Chester water supplies.

    The following demands can be actively raised in your community:

a) that the terms of reference of the select committee include exploration for uranium ores; and

b) that all exploratory activity in N.S. cease, until the public in this province has decided whether or not uranium mining should go ahead.

    The legislative select committee - a committee on which a majority of members belong to the government party - has not yet stated how it will carry out its investigation. In particular, it has not been stated how it will “receive public input” and “allow the opportunity for meaningful public review of all aspects of the investigation.” The rules of the game set up by the select committee will, to a large extent, predetermine the outcome of the investigation. It is therefore in our interest to raise the demand for rules which will assist the work of arousing and educating the public of Nova Scotia about the health and environmental dangers of uranium mining. How do we go about this task?

    British Columbia and Saskatchewan have both held public inquiries, initiated by their respective governments, into uranium mining. In B.C., because of widespread public opposition, the provincial government stopped the public inquiry and announced a seven-year moratorium on uranium mining and exploration. Both inquiries, which did not involve elected politicians, recommended that subject to certain conditions, uranium mining should go ahead. The government of N.S. will look closely at the B.C. and Saskatchewan inquiries. We who are concerned should therefore do the same.

    The chairman of the B.C. Royal Commission into uranium mining made some very revealing comments concerning public involvement. He said in part that public participation in decision-making can:

- Serve as a safety valve allowing interested parties and groups to express their views before policies are announced and formulated; and

- Ease the enforcement of administrative programs which, increasingly, rely on public understanding and cooperation. If properly conducted, an inquiry will increase confidence in the performance of government institutions and the fairness of processes leading to policy decisions with major public impact.

    We are not interested in being a “safety valve”, but we are interested in how to use the select committee’s public deliberations to our best advantage.

    Two kinds of public meetings were organized by the B.C. and Saskatchewan inquiries into uranium mining. The first were local community hearings, organized in a relatively informal manner. These meetings were generally held in areas likely to be affected by uranium mining or where a demand had come up to hold such meetings. Local people participated and the sentiment expressed was predominantly anti-uranium mining. The second kind of public of public meetings were technical hearings. These hearings were highly structured, like court proceedings, and pro-uranium mining industry, government and academic “experts” dominated. Lawyers played a significant role. The important point is that the B.C. and Saskatchewan inquiries concentrated their attention on the formal technical hearings and related scientific matters.

    The main focus of attention for anti-uranium environmentalists in N.S. at this time should be on getting the select committee to hold extensive community-oriented public hearings around the province, particularly in areas where uranium exploration has been taking place. Such meetings can be used as focus around which to organize and mobilize local people against uranium mining and exploration.

    The government’s intention will be to use the select committee to minimize public debate, allow exploration to continue and, after some time and consultation with various “experts”, to push on with uranium mining. Our intention should be to hold extensive public debates and maximize education and discussion on the health and environmental dangers of uranium exploration and mining. Everyone should therefore start mobilizing people and organizations in their communities, to demand that the select committee organize a public meeting in their local area.

    While we should participate in any technical hearings that may be scheduled, the main task before us is not one of convincing the members of the select committee that uranium mining be opposed. Our main task should be one of convincing and mobilizing the public to oppose uranium mining.

    In order to participate in the public debate on uranium mining, people need educational material. Documentation centres must be set up around the province and literature which opposes uranium mining should be equally available. Transcripts of all material presented at any technical hearings must be made available in the documentation centres.

    Let us not forget that, ultimately, the debate over uranium exploration and mining is a political debate. If we work hard and mobilize the working people of this province, we can stop uranium mining in Nova Scotia.

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