Citizens Stand Up to Niobium Mine in Oka
The community of Oka, Québec, continues to battle the niobium mine planned by Niocan (see “Citizens oppose Niocan's proposed niobium mine in Oka, Québec” in Newsletter No. 3, Spring 2000). Oka residents are demanding a federal environmental assessment. They are convinced that the mine will increase radioactivity in the region, dewater farms, pollute water in the Rousse Brook and underground aquifers, and create dust and safety hazards with its trucks.
The region boasts thriving vegetable gardens and apple orchards with a large Montréal-based market. The parish has voted by more than 60% to oppose the mine.
The mine – owned by Niocan, a Québec company in which the Québec government has an equity investment – is on the same property as an abandoned colombium mine. One of the attractions of the project is the company's promise to clean up the mess left behind by St. Lawrence Columbium when it closed. The company plans to put the tailings in the old open pits (with no liner) and then to paste back-fill the shafts with the new tailings and radioactive slag.
The mine has managed to avoid a proper environmental assessment, because the BAPE (le Bureau d’Audiences Publiques sur l’Environnement), Québec’s environmental assessment agency, exempts mines with production less than 7000 tonnes per day. However, it does have to obtain a certificate of authorization to proceed. In April 2002, responding to an outcry from the parish, the Citizens’ Committee, and the Mohawk Council of Kahnesetake, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and the Minister of Environment and Water, authorized the BAPE to evaluate the potential effects the radioactivity that will result from the mine and mill. That study was released August 24, 2003. It is available at: www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/sections/rapports/publications/bape167.pdf
The study only looked at radioactivity issues, but it referred to a number of other serious problems: acid mine drainage, the release of polluted water directly into the river and from there to a marsh in Lake of Two Mountains, and the storage of tailings in the old pits, where the rock is known to be fractured – among other issues. In addition, the refining process – called “aluminothermie” – adds aluminium ferroxide to the concentrate thereby substituting the niobium with a molecule of aluminum. This allows the niobium to combine with iron. Each 4,200 kg batch of concentrate requires the addition of 2,179 kg of reactive agents. The reaction produces 2,109 kg of ferroniobium in the form of fumes and 4,270 kg of radioactive slag. More waste is produced than the amount of the original concentrate!
At the same time, Québec requires that any conversion of agricultural land be approved by the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Lands (CPTAQ). The Commission held hearings in 2001 and granted an authorization to Niocan. The Mohawk Council of Kahnesatake appealed this decision to the Québec Administrative Tribunal in November 2001, and submitted a detailed report prepared by their consultants. The report is a scathing indictment of the project. No decision has yet been released.
The Mohawks also made submissions to the federal Minister of the Environment demanding a full EA, since part of the mine will affect their traditional territory.
Niobium is used as an alloy in making steel. It is found in carbonitite, which emits low level radio-activity due to uranium and uranium decay products in the ore body.
See the Urgent Action from March, 2002 “Support the Mohawks of Kanesatake – Demand Action to Stop Niocan” on our web site.