This article is from Yale Environment 360.com: http://e360.yale.edu/
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades.
Canada’s Nunavut Territory is the largest undisturbed wilderness in the Northern Hemisphere. It also contains large deposits of uranium, generating intense interest from mining companies and raising concerns that a mining boom could harm the caribou at the center of Inuit life.
Until her semi-nomadic family moved into the tiny Inuit community of Baker Lake in the 1950s, Joan Scottie never knew there was a wider world beyond her own on the tundra of the Nunavut Territory in the Canadian Arctic. She didn’t see the inside of a school until she was a teenager and didn’t venture south until she was an adult.
But that all changed in 1978, when a Soviet satellite carrying 100 pounds of enriched uranium for an onboard nuclear reactor crashed into the middle of the wilderness she knew so well, resulting in a military search that recovered some of the radioactive debris. Everything that Scottie learned about uranium after that convinced her she wanted nothing to do with a mineral that had the potential to cause such serious health problems or be used for military purposes.
So when a German mining company showed up at Baker Lake ten years later with a plan to extract uranium from an area that included a key caribou calving ground, Scottie and her Inuit neighbors weighed the environmental implications against the economic advantages and voted emphatically to say “No.” The German company eventually dropped its plans.
Now, however, the Inuit grandmother of two finds herself once again on the front lines of a grassroots movement trying to block several new companies from mining uranium from the same lodes near Baker Lake. And this time the playing field has changed.
The Canadian government has made it clear that Arctic mining will be one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic future. It is encouraging mining companies to exploit the deposits of gold, silver, zinc, diamonds, uranium and other minerals and metals found in abundance in the vast areas of the enormous Nunavut Territory, as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
In spite of the global recession of 2008 and the March 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which caused some countries to reconsider nuclear power, uranium exploration is proceeding at a record pace in this part of the world. In Scottie’s backyard, the French mining giant, Areva — partnering with JCU Exploration of Canada and the DAEWOO Corporation of Korea — is actively exploring a major uranium lode at Kiggavik, the site of the former planned German mine, 50 miles west of Baker Lake. Other companies also are considering building mines in the surrounding tundra. In the territory of Nunavut alone, more than $322 million was spent on uranium exploration in 2011, up from $189 million in 2009.
The Inuit are split on the wisdom of large-scale uranium mining in their territory, with some saying their communities desperately need the economic development, while others are concerned about the environmental fallout from the industry. With a population of just 30,000 mostly Inuit people living in a territory the size of Western Europe, Nunavut — which contains a sizeable part of mainland Canada as well as most of the country’s Arctic Archipelago, extending nearly to the North Pole — remains the largest undisturbed wilderness in the northern hemisphere. Though some mining roads exist, not a single road connects its 25 communities. As a result, some of the biggest caribou herds in the world — ranging in size from 65,000 to more than 400,000 — migrate freely.
Scottie, other Inuit, environmental groups, some scientists, and the country’s environmental agency, Environment Canada, are concerned that a mining boom in parts of Nunavut will interfere with the calving and migration of caribou, which already are experiencing stress from a warming Arctic climate. These groups also worry about contamination from uranium mining, especially given the history in northern Canada of mining companies abandoning their mines and performing little, if any, environmental cleanup.
“What happened in the past is a concern,” says Ramsey Hart, who works for Mining Watch, an environmental watchdog based in Ottawa. “With uranium especially, we’ve seen prices rise and fall dramatically in relatively short periods of time. What happens to these open pit mines and roads and tailings if the mines are no longer economically viable? And what happens to caribou? Their numbers in the Arctic are already down dramatically.”
Last year, seven companies searching for uranium held 554 active leases to explore on the Beverly caribou herd’s traditional calving ground. Only a fraction of these projects will be move forward. But experts say that by 2017, eight mines may begin production in the Kitikmeot region, which encompasses the northwest portion of mainland Nunavut.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Yale Environment 360.com website: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_vast_canadian_wilderness_poised_for_a_uranium_boom/2489/