It's a straight shot down the 401 from Toronto to Port Hope, taking about an hour and half to drive. As you approach the town, subtle signs of its uniqueness dot the roadside. The Welcome radioactive waste site appears on your right, covered in snow and absent the usual flock of geese. Entering town, scattered lots are fenced in, tell-tale "radioactive" warning signs fixed to the chicken wire.
When you reach downtown, Cameco Corporation dominates the skyline, settling in the middle of the waterfront parallel to the historic main street. Cameco, formerly Eldorado Nuclear, splits the waterfront into two sections. To the east, a long and wide sandy beach, covered with craggy peaks of ice and snow this time of year. To the west, another beach and the town's drinking water plant.
There are anglers along the shoreline, bundled up in parkas with rods dangling in the turning basin. One man sits in his lawn chair, fishing from Cameco's wastewater discharge pipe.
On the centre pier - which splits the harbour entrance from the yacht club - an enormous mound covered in black tarp blocks the view of the plant?s eastern face.
Just two blocks away, cars pack Port Hope Town Hall parking lot. Residents, industry, unions, reporters, activists, and politicians have come to talk about the recent past and the near future of the Cameco facility. They are watching a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission meeting on flat-screen monitors, listening to the proceedings over large speakers. When their time to speak comes, they take a seat at a desk in front of a video camera and address members of the Commission back in Ottawa.
The Port Hope room is so full that people are standing around the walls and sprawling on the floor. A few more sit in an overflow room listening to another audio speaker. In Ottawa, another 50 individuals take part in the hearing. The two assemblies listen, make presentations, and talk amongst themselves over the course of the day.
The hearing is supposed to be an opportunity for the public to comment on Cameco Corporation's environmental and safety performance over the last three years. Delegates submitted written requests to the CNSC more than a month ago, yet the schedule fails to accommodate the number of presenters. The result is 17-hours of back-to-back presentations: Zircatec in the morning, Cameco in the afternoon/evening/morning.
Delegates for the Cameco presentation begin arriving at the Town Hall mid-day, but the Zircatec hearing is running behind. A camera crew and a small scrum of print reporters are interviewing an official from the Port Hope Fire Department. He explains that the department would not fight fires involving hazardous chemicals - leaving Cameco and Zircatec without a local emergency response team. In the event of a fire, crews would have to be dispatched from Oshawa, Peterborough, or Toronto, he says. In Ottawa, the press was over at Parliament, listening to and reporting on the latest federal budget.
Safety and environmental concerns are the focus of the day. In our written submission, Waterkeeper described our concern that Cameco had not proved its wastewater discharges are clean every hour of every day, as required by federal law. Scheduled to present around 2 pm, we finally made our submission around 7 pm.
During the hearing, the large black mound on the centre pier is explained. It contains some 16,500 cubic metres of contaminated and radioactive soil. The waste belongs to the federal government and is being stored on land leased to Cameco. The Province of Ontario (the regulator of hazardous waste) has issued no licenses for the site. They call it "temporary storage" during the hearing, but the final destination does not yet exist and has not yet undergone an environmental assessment. The edges of the waste mound are a few feet from the concrete walls of Port Hope Harbour.
In our presentation, Waterkeeper argues that Cameco should be held to the same standards as any other industrial facility operating on Lake Ontario. We are concerned that the CNSC, which regulates the nuclear industry, does not yet ensure that its facilities are in compliance with federal or provincial environmental laws. As if to prove our point, CNSC staff repeatedly state that Cameco doesn?t exceed licence limits for wastewater discharges. But they only mean the specifics in the CNSC licence and they overlook incidents when wastewater is so toxic it kills fish.
It is now early evening and presenters, Commissioners, and onlookers appear tired. Tensions run high. Unhappy with rhetoric from the Commisioner, some residents jeer. Frustrated, the Commisioners cut off some citizen intervenors. They serve Halloween candy for dinner in Ottawa and Tim Horton's donuts in Port Hope - by this time, only the rainbow frosted sprinkle donuts are left and there are still some 25 presentations left to go.
The report being discussed is missing information that the public and the Commissioners need to have an informed dialogue. Waterkeeper requests that the Commision not accept the report until it is completed. The request is for a sign of good faith, something that shows the CNSC understands the public?s concerns and that it is committed to diligent scrutiny of Cameco's operations. But the CNSC explains that it has already accepted the report as is - that it, in fact, they accepted it before any public submissions were heard.
In the end, the hearing is a pretense. It is public consultation without decision-making, education, or order. The issues - our freshwater, our health, and the future of our community - are too important for this kind of show.
Waterkeeper leaves while many others stay until the early hours of the morning. In the darkness of the long drive home, we all understand that today's hearing was less about Cameco's performance than the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commision's. We are not comforted.