As we recoil in horror at developments in Donald Trump’s new United States, Canadians’ environmental problems might seem a little less pressing by comparison. We survived Stephen Harper’s political and financial attacks on our scientists and his attempts to gut our legislative protection for natural resources, and our new government has expressed a commitment to global climate accords, but we can’t relax. Pierre Trudeau once compared our situation adjacent to the US to sleeping with an elephant: everything the elephant does affects us, particularly in the regions of our shared border including the Great Lakes basin.
Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin, our current prime minister, presides over our response to this century’s environmental issues and his record is mixed. He changed the environment portfolio’s label to “environment and climate change,” but he also approved the controversial Keystone Pipeline to move oil from Alberta to the US.
Amongst other outstanding issues is the Deep Geological Repository proposed for the town of Kincardine, about a kilometre from the shore of Lake Huron and the site of the world’s largest nuclear facility, first discussed in May 2015. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) would like to bury low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste—incinerated cleaning materials, used protective clothing, and building materials—in a shaft 700 metres below the lake bed. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, asked OPG to report on possible alternative sites for the dump, which they did and concluded that the proposed site is the best, partly because trucking the waste to another site would be more dangerous, but opponents are dissatisfied with the process.
“OPG has looked at this from the point of view that this will not leak. We have to look at this from the perspective that this will leak,” Beverly Fernandez, head of a lobby group called Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump told the Sarnia Observer. “Putting a nuclear waste repository (at the Bruce) is more than risky. It’s knowing disregard for the health of millions of people.”
She said 186 jurisdictions representing 22 million people have passed resolutions opposing the DGR near Kincardine, and a petition opposing the plan has 150,000 signatures.
“OPG is looking for a shortcut solution to a major long-term problem,” she said.
The Minister has yet to announce a decision. She has promised to rule before the end of 2017.
The Great Lakes provide the drinking water for at least 40 million people on both sides of the border, and contamination in one lake would mean contamination in all of them. OPG claims that the rock in the area of the proposed site has been stable for 450 million years and is relatively non-porous. This is true, but it is not impermeable and the area sits on a faultline in the Great Lakes tectonic zone, which stretches from South Dakota to Sudbury, meaning that it is prone to minor earthquakes. In fact, all of Canada is subject to frequent small quakes, with the majority of the activity in the west and in Quebec. So far, our quakes are minor but climate change has made all of our knowledge suspect. We just don’t know what the future holds as our environmental received wisdom is challenged by radical changes to our weather and our natural world.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency recently awarded $146,000 to groups opposed to the DGR to fund further study, including $54,000 to the Historic Saugeen Metis, who have yet to give their consent to the project. The town of Kincardine, which has identified itself as a “willing host” for the dump and where many of the plant’s employees live, will stand to reap about $35 million as a reward.
Ontario, which banned coal-fired power plants in 2003, relies on nuclear energy but what to do with waste is a conundrum. The Bruce plant is the largest nuclear facility in the world, and the new repository would cost $2.4 billion, but burying the waste at other possible sites—either in crystalline rock in Northern Ontario or in limestone in Southern Ontario—would cost much more. OPG has yet to figure out what to do with spent nuclear fuel. That is the subject of an ongoing study.