Jobs for Cancer? Trading Health for Money

Clearwater, BC residents seem prepared to trade off an increased cancer rate for a few more jobs provided by the Harper Pit Mine. Unlike the demonstrations that were held in the 1960's, opposition proves small in their current times of economic slump.

by Thaddeus Latarte

Five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine an open pit mine being welcomed by the people of Clearwater, BC. In 2006, the resi­dents of Clearwatersent International Ranger Corporation packing. Inter­national Ranger was trying to revive a local uranium claim that had been active in the 1960s. At Ranger’s open house, hundreds of people demon­strated.

Today, the town is in an economic slump. Forestry has hit a downturn. Government facilities have also suf­fered cutbacks; BC Parks has deci­mated its staff, a local prison has closed, and the Headwaters Forest District has laid off staff. In a small town, every job lost has a serious im­pact. Although some workers have found employment, it may be as far away as Fort MacMurray, a nine-hour drive into Northern Alberta.

With the Harper Creek Mine pro­posal, an open pit copper and gold mine, these families see the potential to resume a normal existence with all members living under the same roof.

So today, there is nothing but a whisper of opposition to the mine. Yel­lowhead Mining Inc.’s Harper Creek Mine is a proposed 70,000-tonne/day copper-gold- and- silver open pit mine located near Vavenby, approximately 90 km north-north-east of Kamloops, British Columbia.

Of course open-pit mines come with a vast number of environmental impacts. Since the project would sit at an elevation of 1,700 metres which is 1,300 metres above the floor of the Thompson Valley and at the headwa­ters of three major creeks, water pol­lution should be a huge concern but it hasn’t received an honourable men­tion in the letters to the local paper. Impact on fish or wildlife? Forget it. This is another issue that fails to get any local traction. Acid runoff? That’s tomorrow’s problem, not today’s.

Unfortunately, discussion of the impact of possible increased radiation exposure did not occur in time for the public comment period of the Envi­ronmental Assessment Process..

The proposed Harper Creek Mine would be very close to International Ranger’s old uranium claim. Even BC government mineral maps show a few hot spots in and around the Harper Creek claims. While there is not likely to be any commercial-grade uranium ore within the proposed open pit, even trace amounts of radium and thorium would suggest that radon gas may be resident in the pores of the rock.

The Harper Creek Mine will be processing 150,000 tonnes of rock each day. Half of this will be milled to a size of 25 microns – twenty-five thousandths of a millimetre. The min­ing activities will expose between 400 and 800 square kilometres of rock to the air each and every day, throughout its twenty-year life. This will provide the opportunity not only for the re­lease of radon into the air but for small particles of radium, and other radioac­tive elements, to enter the water.

Local radiation levels

The radiation levels due to ra­don gas in the towns of Clearwater and Barriere are the highest in BC. There is considerable local specu­lation regarding the origin of these levels. Since the area is rich in trace uranium, specs of radium might be decaying in the alluvial soil found in the valley bottom. These emanations, trapped by the frequent temperature inversions that are common in the val­ley, might explain the high levels.

Some residents believe that ra­don and radium – they’re soluble in water – may be transported by the waters of the Clearwater River. There are known to be uranium deposits in Wells Gray Park. It is possible that both ground and surface waters may be picking up radioactive elements and transporting them into the river. These would then decay into radon.

Another possible radon source could be the emanations that come from the mess left over by uranium exploration, at Foghorn Creek, over 1,000 metres above Birch Island, just outside Clearwater. The area is hot. However no studies have been done to pinpoint the sources of radiation in the North Thompson Valley.

Transport mechanism

Any radon released from the Harper Creek Mine is likely to find its way into the Thompson valley with the evening flows of cool air. The An­drews Experimental Forest, in Oregon (andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/) has measured airflows along creeks flow­ing into mountain valleys. Andrews’ research has shown that these evening air flows can reach speeds of 1.5 me­tres/second, or close to 5 km/hr. Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days, or 92 hours. About ten half-lives are required before the radiation released by radon approaches background lev­els. Even if radon is transported down the steep creeks, at 5 km/h, and then stagnates in the Thompson Valley at much slower rates of movement, the range of Harper Creek radon could be considerable.

Any radiation coming from the Harper Creek Mine would be added to the high radiation levels to which valley residents are already being ex­posed.

Inversions in valley bottoms

High radon concentrations can be a problem in mountain valleys. Even without help from open pit mines or uranium tailings, the temperature in­versions that are a common feature in mountain valleys trap pollutants close to the ground and prevent their dilution through upward movement with convection currents. Here, radon percolates up through the soil into the air, where the stagnant air conditions allow its concentration to build. In Umhausen, Austria, radon concentra­tions in the valley bottom were found to be several times what they were in the surrounding area, and so were the lung cancer rates. The radon source was entirely natural: it came from an ancient landslide of igneous rock.

Radon may have been a dem­onstrated problem elsewhere, but in the North Thompson, the myth of prosperity is butting heads with the threat of radiation. Unlike 2006, when Clearwater chased away the uranium miners, the town now seems prepared to trade off an increased cancer rate for a few more jobs.

***

The author is a retired teacher who once lived in St. Lawrence, New­foundland where over 200 miners lost their lives due to silicosis and expo­sure to radon gas, and holds a BSc in Physics and a BA

For More Information

B.C. Centre for Disease Control, www.bccdc.ca

Health Canada, www.hc-sc.gc.ca/iyh-vsv/environ/radon_e.html

Radon Information Centre, www.radon.com, 1-800-AIR-CHEK

“Unusually high indoor radon concentrations from a giant rock slide,” Ennemoser et al, Institute of Medical Physics, University of Inns­bruck, Austria. Sci Total Environ. 1994 Jul 18;151(3):235-40.

Major Projects Management Of­fice, Harper Creek Copper-Gold-Sil­ver Mine, www.mpmo-bggp.gc.ca

Yellowhead Mining, www.yel­lowheadmining.com

[From WS January/February 2012]

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