MAC: Mines and Communities

Paradise Lost?

Published by MAC on 2007-07-07
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

Paradise lost?

Many Ontario landowners do not own the rights to the minerals beneath their land, but don't realize it until someone pays $25.50 to stake a claim. Some residents of Frontenac County can only hope their backyard does not become a uranium mine.

Roger Collier, The Ottawa Citizen -

7th July 2007

When Frank Morrison looks out his living room window, he doesn't see the drab, concrete face of an apartment building. He doesn't see a gas station, a Wal-Mart or a neighbour hovering over a barbecue. The only neighbours Mr. Morrison and his wife, Gloria, have are sugar maples and ironwoods, pines and poplars.

It was the rolling meadow and the streams that drew Mrs. Morrison to these 100 acres in North Frontenac. But for Mr. Morrison, it was the trees. He spends much of his time in his forest, thinning overgrown areas, clearing trails, collecting the nine cords he cuts each year for firewood.

Last November, Mr. Morrison discovered he wasn't the only one spending time in his woods. Some of his trees were scarred with long, shallow notches. A few had been lopped off, metal tags bearing the Ontario trillium symbol affixed to the metre-high stumps left behind. Others wore pink ribbons.

He was displeased, to put it mildly, that his trees had met with an axe that wasn't his own. But who had done it? He thought it may have been Ontario Hydro, until he inspected the tags.

"This is not Hydro," Mr. Morrison recalls thinking. "This is a prospector."

In 1996, a two-line ad in the Citizen led the Morrisons to this parcel of land west of Perth. What they didn't know then was that beneath the streams and meadows and trees lay something that would become, 11 years later, one of the most sought after materials on earth: uranium.

Since that day in November, other North Frontenac residents have found pink ribbons on their trees, and they've learned, much to their surprise, that they only own the surface of their land and not what's buried beneath. (The majority of Ontario landowners, however, own both.) They've also learned about a 139-year-old piece of Ontario legislation that allows mining prospectors "free entry" to their properties.

Landowners' rights groups say it's ridiculous that the mining industry enjoys privileged access to private land thanks to an ancient law that should have been quashed years ago. Some say it amounts to "legalized trespassing." But no matter how many private landowners cry foul, one thing has become painstakingly clear: Canadian mining laws are set in stone.

It is because of these laws, and the world's increasing appetite for uranium, that Canada is enjoying a surge in exploration for the silvery-white metal. Prospectors have been busy all over the country, from the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan to the Thelon Basin in the North West Territories; from Happy Valley, N.L., to Kettle Valley, B.C.

In West Quebec, Vancouver-based Aldershot Resources Ltd. has staked nearly 40,000 acres for uranium exploration --mostly in Fort-Coulonge, La Peche and Shawville -- and Hawk Uranium Ltd. of Toronto has been active on Grand-Calumet Island. In North Frontenac, a company called Frontenac Ventures Corp. has staked more than 400 claims, including the one on Mr. Morrison's property, covering an area 20 kilometres long and six kilometres wide.

Why the sudden interest in uranium? Punch the words "uranium" and "stock price" into Google and you'll quickly find the answer. A graph of the price history of uranium over the past few years would be steep enough to make a Sherpa cringe. With a spot price of $135 U.S. a pound, it costs 19 times what it did just seven years ago.

Uranium is primarily used as fuel in nuclear power reactors. With so many energy-hungry countries looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power, which doesn't produce any, is becoming a popular option to keep air conditioners running. Problem is, the world's uranium supply is being consumed at almost twice the rate it's being mined. That means it's a good time to be dealing in uranium but, as Mr. Morrison has learned, a bad time to be living above it.

Before moving to North Frontenac, Mr. Morrison, 62, lived in Ottawa for more than 30 years. But having grown up in Cape Breton, he's always been, at heart, a small-town guy. Since retiring from his career in marketing and promotions, he rarely returns to the city.

The Morrisons' rustic home is made from their own trees. It took two years to build. Mr. Morrison did most of the grunt work himself. Before the house was finished, they stayed in a cabin that Mr. Morrison had built entirely by hand, without power tools. It didn't have running water or hydro, not that it mattered.

"We spent the best Christmases in the world there," says Mr. Morrison.
It is little surprise, then, that when he felt his rural paradise was under threat, Mr. Morrison educated himself on what he could do to save it. He called the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. He called the Ministry of Natural Resources. He called environmental groups. The more people he talked to, the less he liked what he was hearing. "I was finding out that you can't fight city hall," says Mr. Morrison. "And city hall is the mining industry."

Landowners must pay taxes to maintain rights to minerals buried beneath their properties. To save money, many Canadians have forfeited their "mineral rights" to the government, leaving them only with what is referred to as "surface rights." When a property is sold, the buyer cannot reclaim the forfeited rights.

According to the Ontario Mining Act, passed in 1868 and changed little since, if you're at least 18 years old and have $25.50, you can purchase a prospector's licence and stake a mining claim on private property, as long as the property's owner doesn't possess its mineral rights. Claims cannot, however, be staked on certain areas, such as gardens, orchards, "pleasure grounds," or on land containing homes or churches. Prospectors don't have to notify landowners before or after staking claims.

If a mining company is interested in a claim, it can lease the mineral rights from a prospector and begin exploratory work, which could entail clearing trees (which the company doesn't have to replace) to make roads, digging trenches (which the company doesn't have to fill if it removes less than 10,000 cubic metres of soil), or drilling holes (from which the company can remove 1,000 tonnes of rock). Mining companies can begin exploration within 24 hours of notifying landowners.

Prospectors and miners enjoy these privileges thanks to the "law of free entry."

"It's a law that made sense 150 years ago," says Karen Campbell, a lawyer with a Canadian environmental organization called the Pembina Institute. "It's completely outdated for today's age."

When Canadian mining laws were written, practically everyone believed mining was the best use of land, says Ms. Campbell. Privileged access to land encouraged people to move to remote areas and develop mines.

Few people lived in these areas, so few private landowners were affected. Mines were also much smaller in scale.

"Back then, a mine wasn't what it is today. Today's mines are major operations with massive impacts. They move massive piles of rock and you can have perpetual pollution," she says. "And now people are trying to mine where other people live."

The reason mining laws have changed so little, Ms. Campbell says, is because the mining industry still wields a lot of influence in Canada. The free entry system has been in place for so long, she says, that miners have developed a "psychology of entitlement."

"It's high time government repealed it, unless someone can make a compelling case to keep it," she says. "I'd be interested in hearing what folks in the mining industry would say is a compelling reason why they should have access to retirees' cottage properties."

Roy Denomme, senior manager of mining lands for the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, says there is a compelling reason to keep the free entry system. Two reasons, actually.
"It provides a level playing field and it's a very simple process," says Mr. Denomme.

Critics of free entry want the ministry to give everyone back their mineral rights and only allow prospectors access to Crown land. But that's not going to happen, says Mr. Denomme. "It's a Crown resource, and we want to make sure it's explored and developed to better the economy."

Besides, only one per cent of private landowners in Ontario don't own their mineral rights, he says. (According to the Bedford Mining Alert, it is approximately two per cent.) And it's only an unhappy few, mostly in eastern Ontario, making any fuss. Even if staked, the chances are slim -- one in 10,000 claims, according to the mining ministry -- that a mine will ever open in somebody's backyard. But if people want to guarantee that miners never step foot on their properties, Mr. Denomme says they should only buy properties with attached mineral rights.

"People spend more time checking out a car than they do a piece of land."

Many Canadians who have had their land staked admit they didn't know what mineral rights were, let alone who owned them, when they bought their properties. Still, they are astonished that today's provincial governments would allow miners such easy access to private land. Their astonishment turns to worry when they learn how much damage miners have caused to some people's quality of life.

In 2006, a man from Vernon, B.C., discovered that a nearby recluse who lived in a truck --and was known to wander after dark wearing night-vision goggles and carrying a rifle -- had staked a claim on his land. After seeing the prospector lurking near his home, the rancher moved his daughter and wife to another house and bought a guard dog. A man in Westport, Ont., couldn't get liability insurance on his 13-acre property last year after discovering 20 trenches, some 100 metres long and three metres deep, that had been dug by a prospector looking for graphite. In 2004, a B.C. court ordered a Kamloops couple off their ranch so a company could begin strip-mining for diatomaceous earth, which is used to make kitty litter.

So what can you do if you drive to your cottage this summer only to find it's become a prospector's playground? Truth is, not much. You can launch a protest to the mining ministry within one year of the claim date, but if the prospector has followed the rules, you'll probably lose. Then again, as one North Frontenac man discovered, prospectors do make mistakes.

Don Huff's property was staked in March, by the same prospector who staked his neighbour's property. But the prospector had staked along incorrect property lines. So Mr. Huff's neighbour secured a prospector's licence, and the pair staked their own claim.
"We're not against mining," says Mr. Huff. "But if there is mining, we want to have control."

As for Mr. Morrison, he's not looking to get around free entry laws; he's decided to fight on a different front: the environment. He's joined with other North Frontenac residents who believe uranium mining will contaminate the earth and poison the water. The group held a meeting a couple of months ago and a hundred people showed up. They held a two-day protest at a Frontenac Ventures' work site in late June. Their ultimate goal: a ban on uranium mining.

George White, the 74-year-old owner of Frontenac Ventures Corporation, isn't worried. He says the anti-mining crowd is trying to scare everybody else with 50-year-old environmental horror stories. Mining today, says Mr. White, is heavily regulated and poses little environmental risk.

Most of the people he's spoken to are in favour of mining, says Mr. White. He's approached more than a dozen residents who own their mineral rights and only one has refused to lease them to Frontenac Ventures, he says.

If his company's exploratory work, which is set to begin soon and may last for five years, ever leads to the opening of a mine, Mr. White says it would be a boon for the region. It could mean up to 600 jobs. To him, the question facing North Frontenac residents is easy. "Do you want prosperity with an environmentally responsible company," he says. "Or do you want to sit back and be negative and put your heads in the sand?"

Conflicts like the one happening in North Frontenac are becoming increasingly frequent in Ontario. Frequent enough that the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines is planning on making a few concessions.

It is considering a proposal that will require prospectors to notify landowners within 60 days of staking a claim. Mining companies may soon have to notify landowners each time they plan on doing exploratory work instead of just before the first time. The ministry may also adopt a "paper staking" process, which will allow prospectors to stake claims without entering property at all. But these changes, if they do occur, will offer little peace of mind to Mr. Morrison. At any time, miners can drag a five-tonne drill onto his land and there is little he can do to stop them.

"It's a kick in the guts," he says. "I can sit here for 10, 15, 20 years, on pins and needles, waiting for the other uranium shoe to drop."

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