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Uranium uproar overtakes N.B. in 2008

As a result of new rules, there is now no exploration in N.B.: minister

Times & Transcript Staff: Cole Hobson - January 1st, 2009

http://timestranscript.canadaeast.com/news/article/527296

Stumble Upondel.icio.usDiggFacebookPrintEmail1 Comment(s)There is currently no uranium exploration going on in New Brunswick and if the public furor over the past year is any indication, that's good news for many of the province's citizens.

Enlarge Photo VIKTOR PIVOVAROV/TIMES & TRANSCRIPTLocal residents look at maps showing where claims have been made at Irishtown community centre earlier this year during a public meeting on uranium mining and exploration. Department of Natural Resources Minister Wally Stiles, who took over from Donald Arseneault as minister in November, confirmed recently that those staunchly against uranium exploration have something to cheer about.

"Right now there are no uranium exploration activities taking place in the province. I don't think it is due to the weather, I'm sure there are all kinds of reasons, but it's probably the restrictions that we put in place. That has had an effect on some exploration, there's no question about it," Stiles said in an interview.

After months of public outrage, public rallies and attempts to stop the exploration of the potentially harmful substance in the province, the department announced regulations in July of 2008 which banned uranium exploration in all municipalities, watersheds and near private wells. As well, government announced a buffer zone of 300 metres (1,000 feet) around any residences or institutional building where companies wouldn't be able to stake claims.

"People in New Brunswick did have some concerns, as a government we listened to those concerns and we acted responsibly on those concerns," Stiles said.

On the surface, the new, harsher regulations seemed to do the trick -- the public got its wish and many uranium companies hit the road.

"We can't do uranium now. (Uranium exploration) is going to be suspended until the government changes its regulations," Edward Thompson, chairman of Toronto-based Sparton, said in an August interview.

Ucore Uranium of New Brunswick also ceased New Brunswick uranium operations in the summer and a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson said the most recent exploration work was finished by Toronto-based Vale Inco in November.

Left behind were 40 uranium exploration drillholes, which Stiles says have all been "capped off and looked after completely."

"All those holes have been inspected and there's no problems that have been identified whatsoever," Stiles said.

Despite the current lack of activity, the province's main uranium detractors argue there should still be a complete moratorium put in place.

Stiles says he doesn't believe any uranium-related legislative changes are upcoming for the province, but confirms that he believes the current regulations are strict enough to ensure the safety of New Brunswickers.

"Yes, I do think (the regulations are strict enough) and I'll qualify that. I'm a landowner myself; I feel the restrictions we've put in place have protected me and I believe New Brunswickers are protected as well," he said.

The minister adds that New Brunswick is still "open for business" for any companies who wish to explore -- within the regulations.

"It's the climate I guess of the global economy we have right now, it has an effect. If (companies) come back then we still have those restrictions in place. We want to make sure we are open for business, there's no question about that, but we have reacted very responsibly in dealing with citizen concerns," he said.

Whether it was letters or calls to the department of natural resources, petitions, or yellow signs admonishing uranium mines, the outrage over the issue manifested itself in many ways in the province.

A coalition group against uranium mining, led by Yvonne Devine of the southeastern chapter of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, staged public information sessions and protests in various communities around the province. The biggest took place at Moncton's Capitol Theatre in June when more than 800 protesters showed up to voice their displeasure.

The government also held information sessions throughout the province in the summer, in what was perhaps a hopeless attempt to convince concerned citizens there were no great risks to the practice.

Finally, in July, the government moved from a defensive approach to an accommodating one as they unveiled the new regulations, which put an end to most of the public outcry against uranium.

"Our government heard the concerns of the people of New Brunswick and we have responded," said former natural resources minister Arseneault at the time of the July announcement. "These changes are consistent with New Brunswick's public policy approach of being proactive in protecting designated drinking water supplies, and they address the issues of access to private landowners' property."

As part of the changes, all mineral-claims staking activity in the province were suspended until a new electronic map-staking system could be implemented, which would replace previous on-site staking. The system was brought online in November and is expected to be fully operational by November of 2009. It can be accessed through the Department of Natural Resources website.

What is in store for the future of uranium in New Brunswick remains unclear. While there is currently no uranium activity in the province, it's anyone's guess what 2009 holds for the controversial radioactive material.

"We are open for business and we're committed to further exploration, but it has to be responsible development, of any resources in the province of New Brunswick, not just uranium," Stiles said. "We have to be responsible as a government and we will continue to be responsible. It's part of our self-sufficiency plan and we have to have the best interests of all New Brunswickers in mind."

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