What lies beneath

CTV: W-FIVE Staff - November 8, 2008

The Cameco nuclear refinery began as Eldorado -- a mining company that became a state-of-the-art uranium refinery in 1933. The Canadian government took over the company in 1943. In 1988, the Crown corporation was privatized to become the Cameco Corporation.

The picture perfect town of Port Hope lies on the shores of Lake Ontario, 100 km east of Toronto. Some call this historic town one of the prettiest in Ontario, famous for its antique shopping and elegant bed and breakfasts.

But Port Hope is famous for more than historic buildings and scenic views. The town is home to Canada's oldest nuclear refinery; a looming structure that sits on the shores of the lake, right in the middle of town.

At the height of World War Two, Eldorado was owned by the Canadian government and manufactured the uranium for the first atomic bomb. Today, it's privately-owned by Cameco, the world's largest producer of uranium.

But for some Port Hope residents, nuclear doesn't rest easy. Sanford and Helen-Anne Haskill are two of these people. The Haskills have a clear view of Cameco from the farm their family has owned for more than two centuries. And not far from where the Sanfords live, on the edge of town lies a waste site which stores nuclear waste from the Eldorado days.

According to the Haskills, the waste doesn't always stay in the ground as it should, and this is one of their many concerns. They said a pipe that starts at the nuclear waste site and empties into Lake Ontario right behind Sanford's farm is leaking harmful toxins.

For more than 50 years, the pipe lay buried far out into Lake Ontario where it couldn't be seen. But this year, snow and ice caused a break in the pipe and now the waste water spills onto the shoreline near the Haskill farm.

"There's too much arsenic in it. There's too much uranium and there's beryllium in it and it's a nasty little guy," Sanford Haskill told W-FIVE. Tests done showed levels of arsenic up to 5 times higher than current Ontario guidelines -- and uranium almost 50 times higher.

Haskill took the test results to Cameco and to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the government agency which regulates the nuclear industry in Canada, asking them to do something about toxins spilling into the lake. But it turns out Cameco isn't breaking the law -- at least not any law Cameco is required to follow.

The CNSC allows Cameco to have much higher levels of arsenic in waste water than the Ontario guidelines, and sets no limit on the amount of uranium.

When some Port Hope residents got wind of Sanford's water test, Sanford said he received many threats.

"I've had people say I'd be better off if I was pushing daisies and all this kind of stuff to me. We've got one of the biggest split communities around," he said.

That split is clear. On one side are the Port Hopers who say the nuclear industry is clean and safe and good for the town economy. On the other side are the Port Hopers who say the nuclear industry is contaminating the town and making people sick.

Linda Thompson is the Mayor of Port Hope. She said she doesn't believe the town is divided.

"I think there are very strong feelings on both sides."

And yet some critics of Port Hope said they have the been the target of death threats and that they are terrified of continuing to speak out about what they think are real health concerns.

Mayor Thompson insisted there is no reason for alarm. She denied her citizens are suffering ill effects from the nuclear industry and she backed up her views with eight Health Canada studies done over the last 20 years which have all given Port Hope a clean bill of health.

"The numerous health studies that have been done have been consistent in advising us that there are no health concerns," she told W-FIVE.

But what is safe is very much a matter of opinion. Rosalie Bertell is an epidemiologist who has spent most of her 80 years warning the world about low level radiation. Bertell is one of the world's foremost experts on the effects of uranium on humans. She said uranium dust can stay captured in people's lungs and bones and can wreak havoc over time.

Bertell argued that Health Canada's studies don't tell the full story. She said the studies done to date look primarily at cancer rates and do not look at other illnesses associated with low level radiation.

"You can get Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. You could have miscarriages and still births. You're likely to die sooner, younger or you're likely to have more chronic illness," said Bertell.

Andy Oliver, the vice president of Cameco's fuel service division insisted Cameco is a good neighbour. He said Cameco does not pollute.

"There are very low levels of uranium. They are well below any regulatory standard. They are perfectly safe," Oliver told W-FIVE.

The nuclear debate in Port Hope isn't new. It started back in the 1930's when Eldorado first opened shop. It's a debate that seems to have no end but some say there is a solution.

"Just go to zero emissions," said Sanford Haskill. "Let the federal government clean up around Cameco, get rid of all this low level stuff we've got in Port Hope and take it to a safe site. And this town is back united."

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