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Haven't we been here, done this?

Kathleen O'Hara - Toronto Star, August 31, 2007

Call it an advantage of aging, but, more and more, I appreciate historical patterns. Having lived through the last half of one century and the first years of another, I have a greater sense of trends past and present. I categorize things in terms of eras.

Take energy. For me, coal power reeks of the dirty, unregulated 19th century, nuclear of the blindly scientific 20th, solar and wind of the oh-oh-we've-gone- too-far 21st. Therefore, no matter how much the advocates of coal and nuclear energy try to dress up their products for the present, I can't accept them. They are old-fashioned.

This is why a controversy over uranium mining in the beautiful countryside near Sharbot Lake, 80 kilometres north of Kingston, appears so out-of-date and wrong. The idea of establishing such a mine in a land of wild blueberries, maple syrup, fishing lodges, boys' and girls' camps, and cottages conjures up bygone days when society just didn't know better.

Having played a minor communications role in the decommissioning of the Elliot Lake mine, which left behind 130 million tonnes of radioactive sludge, I thought we were done with all that. The prospect of using CO2-emitting trucks and heavy machinery to tear apart more pristine Ontario acres in search of a metal that is potentially toxic is, well, anachronistic.

In fact, things nuclear seem so out-of-sync with today's world that I had been ignoring the Sharbot Lake mine controversy, merely glancing at media reports of anti-mine demonstrations along Highway 7, the Algonquin First Nations' 24/7 blockade of the mining company's access roads, the company's $77 million suit against the natives, and its injunction to stop the blockade, which the protesters plan to ignore.

But the issue has proved impossible to avoid. A recent study casts doubt on the safety of living near a nuclear plant due to higher rates of childhood leukemia; the cost to re-seal the site of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown will be more than $1 billion; and we've just marked the Aug. 6 and 8 anniversaries of the vaporizing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - with bombs of Canadian uranium.

It wasn't just the mining issue that kept tugging at my consciousness and conscience. Growing up in Kingston, I knew of the Algonquins in Deseronto, but not of those near Sharbot Lake. I wasn't alone. Several long-time Kingstonians I surveyed had "no idea they were up there" either.

Now, these low-profile neighbours want to reclaim some of their land based on a royal proclamation from the 18th century. And, in a panic, some of the area's non-natives have offered to sell their property to the Algonquins, because native ownership comes with mineral rights, not simply surface rights.

With their allies, the protesting Algonquins say they are trying to protect the watersheds of the Ottawa and Mississippi Rivers, which provide water to about 1 million people in our nation's capital. They are also speaking out against the failure of Queen's Park to consult with locals and notify them that a private company, Frontenac Ventures, was given the exploration go-ahead, staking the land of unsuspecting owners.

These images of an uncommunicative government, an aggressive corporation and an unsustainable industry also harken back to the past. Sure, China is clamouring for uranium, but wouldn't it be better to move together in the right direction - green?

Imagine the impact if those who are clinging to the moribund and the unhealthy devoted their time, money, expertise and enthusiasm to the technologies and needs of the 21st century.

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