Proposed uranium mine creates opportunity for unique research collaboration

Jul 23rd, 2014

Kelly Foss

Proposed uranium mine creates opportunity for unique research collaboration

A potential uranium mine in Labrador is bringing together two very different types of researchers at Memorial.

Dr. Atanu Sarkar is a public health physician and an assistant professor with the Faculty of Medicine’s Division of Community Health and Humanities. He’s currently involved in project with Dr. Derek Wilton, a professor with the Faculty of Science’s Department of Earth Sciences, to assess potential environmental health risks of uranium exploration and possible mining in central Labrador. They are, in part, examining the environmental effects of an old development at the Kitt’s uranium deposit near Makkovik.

Ordinarily the two researchers might not be expected to have much in common, but Dr. Sarkar says they have been collecting information on best practices to help all parties work together to develop a proper strategy of environmental protection in Labrador before any actual uranium mining begins.

To that end, they recently travelled to McArthur River in northern Saskatchewan to the site of the world’s largest high-grade uranium mine.

“We wanted to learn how Cameco, the multi-national company that operates this mine, manages their exploration in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way, while, at the same time, engaging the local Aboriginal communities,” said Dr. Sarkar.

During the trip, the pair toured the mine site, located almost 500 metres underground, and dialogued with company executives, Aboriginal leaders, physicians, government members and researchers at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Many mining sites are in Aboriginal areas, including this one in Saskatchewan,” said Dr. Sarkar. “Cameco has had a positive working relationship with their local community for a long time. In fact, some of their Aboriginal employees are second and third generation workers.

“This facility is a great example of how all of these parties can come together to manage day-to-day affairs, such as regulating mining activities, and addressing legal issues and employment and training, while protecting human health and the environment. We will be sharing these experiences with the community in Labrador so hopefully they can learn from this example.”

In addition to seeing how various members of a community can cooperate on such a project, Dr. Sarkar says the trip was an opportunity to encourage a unique collaboration at the institutional level.

“Often researchers at Memorial work in silos with members of their own disciplines or faculties only,” said Dr. Sarkar. “The collaborative research of public health and earth sciences in the field of environmental health is a rare example of how two very different disciplines can come together and do excellent work.

“It may sound strange, but a rock specialist and a health specialist really can complement each other. I would encourage other researchers in the Memorial community to also think beyond the boundaries of their discipline.”

Funding for the project was provided by the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR), The Atlantic Aboriginal Health Research Program (AAHRP) and the Labrador Institute.