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Licence renewal for Cameco refinery in Blind River under review

Representatives from neighbouring Mississauga First Nation say duty to consult was not fulfilled

The licence for the uranium refinery in Blind River, Ont., is up for renewal, and some parties, including the nearby Mississauga First Nation, are raising concerns.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) held a public hearing on Cameco’s application to have its licence renewed for another 10 years. The current licence will expire in February.

Described by Cameco as the world’s largest commercial uranium refinery, the Blind River facility has operated since 1983.

The CNSC received responses from 50 intervenors, eight of which presented during Wednesday’s hearing.

“Cameco and Blind River are growing together, and we hope this will continue for many years to come,” said Blind River Mayor Sally Hagman, one of several intervenors who spoke in favour of the licence renewal.

Three intervenors raised concerns, including issues around consultation with a neighbouring First Nation, environmental impacts and allegations that Indigenous graves and artifacts were disturbed when the facility was built.

Duty to consult

Mississauga First Nation (MFN) was one of the intervenors. The Blind River Refinery is located less than a kilometre from the First Nation (and is in fact closer to MFN than it is to the town of Blind River.)

MFN representatives brought up issues about health and environmental protection. Core to their concern, they said, is that during its licence renewal process Cameco and CNSC did not fulfil their duty to consult as affirmed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

A shorter term would allow us to more fully engage with Cameco and CNSC.​​​​— Laura Mayer, Mississauga First Nation

CNSC staff member Adam Levine said the application at hand is about renewing ongoing operations and since staff have assessed that the operations are protective of the environment, workers, and local communities, the duty to consult was not triggered.

“From our assessment, the ongoing operations will not cause any new adverse impacts to the exercise of rights,” Levine said.

Laura Mayer, one of the representatives for MFN, said, however, that “the duty to consult is triggered when Indigenous rights may be potentially impacted. These impacts do not need to be certain. Only that there is a potential for impacts.”

Mayer said the duty to consult is an ongoing obligation, not a one-time effort.

Brent Niganobe, Peyton Pitawanakwat and Laura Mayer presented on behalf of Mississauga First Nation, as interveners in Cameco’s licence renewal hearing. (Peyton Pitawanakwat/Facebook)

In its presentation during the hearing, Cameco representatives said the company has for years had a positive relationship with MFN and has met with chief and council at least twice a year over the course of the current licensing period.

Sara Forsey, Cameco’s manager of public and government affairs, said changes in leadership at the First Nation have led to a “period of transition,” but said the company is committed to working with the community and addressing their concerns.

Mayer said she was “shocked” by the company’s positive framing of the history of the relationship.

As well as requesting more direct involvement with environmental assessments,  MFN representatives voiced opposition to a 10-year licence renewal.

“A shorter term would allow us to more fully engage with Cameco and CNSC,” Mayer said.

The call for a shorter licence term was echoed by environmental group Northwatch, which raised concerns about Cameco’s reporting practices.

Allegation about exhumed graves

During the proceedings, there was also discussion about Indigenous artifacts being removed when the facility was first built in the 1980s.

Mississauga elder Joan Morningstar shared a story about how she learned in the late ’80s that graves had been secretly exhumed.

Morningstar said she was hired to clean at the site and believed she was near a disturbed a burial ground, which a friend of hers then confirmed. She said that weekend she went looking for the burial ground and saw depressions in the ground where graves had been exhumed.

“I’m a true witness to the burial ground. I saw the excavation site and I was there,” Morningstar said.

“I want the people back.”

Cameco said it has no documentation about any graves being exhumed when the Blind River Refinery was built. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, Forsey said Cameco has “limited information about that time period” since the company came into existence in 1988, and the facility was built by a Crown corporation.

She said the company knows that archaeological studies were done in the 1970s and ’80s, which included consultation with the Mississauga First Nation. She said the studies “did not identify grave sites or any remains on what is now Cameco property.”

During the hearing, however, Cameco’s fuel services division vice-president, Dale Clark, said the company has “heard verbal accounts from a former employee of some remains that may have been discovered during construction,” and that work stopped and the site was turned over to federal authorities. He said there are no records other than the verbal account.

Clark said Cameco would “certainly welcome” working with the First Nation’s leadership to go through historical documentation.

Commission to deliberate

Heading into the hearing, CNSC staff recommended that the commission approve the licence renewal, saying Cameco has a strong environmental and safety record and continues to meet requirements.

The commission will now deliberate and may request more information before making a decision.

Source: CBC