How a Quebec graphite mine is dividing a community’s support for the EV revolution

Natural flake graphite concentrate prior to drying on the Nouveau Monde Graphite demonstration plant in Saint-Michel-des-Saints, Que.

The Matawinie graphite mine, situated about two hours north of Montreal, is a small a part of an ambitious government plan to make Canada into a producing hub for lithium ion batteries. Electric cars can’t function without somewhere to store electricity, the pondering goes, meaning this country needs battery supply chains if it hopes to remain relevant in a future without fossil fuels.

However the mine has not yet begun producing graphite at industrial scale. It continues to be within the early phases of construction and – like many Canadian resource projects – it’s riven with controversy. Although some locals welcome the economic boost it represents for them and their neighbours, others say that regardless of the project’s ultimate advantages, its effect on their community will likely be destructive.

Above, Ali Baba’s Cave.

Below, people fish on a dock at Auberge du Lac Taureau resort, Saint-Michel-des-Saints, Que.

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s lithium ion batteries are produced in China. Almost 50 per cent of the fabric utilized in each battery is graphite, and that too is a China-dominated industry. The country consolidated graphite production within the Nineties by flooding the world market with the mineral, causing prices to collapse. It now produces about 80 per cent of natural graphite globally. And it produces a lot of the world’s supply of spherical graphite, which is used for manufacturing the anodes of lithium ion batteries.

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In 2021, each the federal government and Quebec’s provincial government announced plans to create lithium ion battery supply chains, which would come with the mining and refining of battery minerals, in addition to battery manufacturing and recycling.

Karim Zaghib, a lithium ion battery expert who led a technical team at Investissement Québec that planned the provincial initiative, explained that increase a domestic battery industry is partly an issue of sovereignty. “Energy independence could be very essential,” he said. “Also independence from fossil fuels.”

The Matawinie mine, which is owned by an organization called Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG), will likely be the biggest graphite mine in North America when or if it enters production. It’s situated just outside the village of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, Que. The world has historically based its economy on forestry, and it also has a thriving tourist industry owing to its natural beauty and proximity to several national and regional parks.

The mine will likely be an open pit, 430 metres across and greater than 2.6 kilometres in length. NMG expects it to provide 100,000 tons of graphite a yr over the course of 26 years. The corporate can be constructing a sophisticated battery materials plant in Bécancour, Que., about 100 kilometres west of Quebec City, where it should refine the graphite into forms suitable for battery manufacturing.

NMG is a partnership between private investors and Investissement Québec, an agency owned by the province’s government. The corporate’s promotional materials present the Matawinie mine as a public good, with a zero-harm approach to the environment. NMG has promised that the project will turn out to be the world’s first all-electric open-pit mine, and that it should achieve carbon neutrality. In 2021, the mine negotiated an agreement with Caterpillar to develop battery-powered surface mining equipment.

But some residents of the region are nervous that the mine shouldn’t be as clean because it claims to be. NMG has admitted that the project won’t ever achieve full carbon neutrality without carbon offsets, that are credits polluters should purchase as an alternative of reducing their very own carbon emissions. The sellers of the offsets then take some type of emissions-reducing motion on the polluters’ behalf, like protecting a forest from logging.

Daniel Tokateloff, a retired engineer and the secretary for the Association for the Protection of Lake Taureau, which is situated near Saint-Michel-des-Saints, argued that offsets aren’t an alternative to direct emissions reductions. “If we follow this line of reasoning, Air Canada may be considered carbon neutral by buying offsets,” he said.

Daniel Tokateloff, the secretary for the Association for the Protection of Lake Taureau, on his balcony Saint-Michel-des-Saints, Que.

Mr. Tokateloff and other area residents are also nervous about water and air contamination. A gaggle called Coalition Opposing a Mining Project in Matawinie, or COPH, has been organizing locals against the project.

“The mine will produce 108 million tons of waste over its 26-year lifespan,” said one COPH member, May Dagher.

The first environmental risks from open-pit mines are acid drainage and metal contamination. The waste rock incorporates high levels of sulphides, which if exposed to air and water create sulphuric acid, a corrosive chemical that may harm nearby ecosystems.

Rivest Bio-Forestry Planning, an environmental sciences company tasked with monitoring water quality across the mine for the municipality of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, has observed slight acidification over the past 4 years in most of the encircling bodies of water it monitors, and a big rise in acidity in Lac aux Pierres, which is directly adjoining to the mine.

Anny Malo, the director and head biologist at Rivest, said it is just too early to say whether this acidification is linked to mining operations. She added that she has really useful that the municipality also monitor for metal contamination. Nevertheless it hasn’t yet done so.

Images submitted by Juliette Mousseau and Joseph Rondeau, who live near the NMG Matawinie Mine site, as a part of a public environmental assessment hearing. They claim that they’ve begun seeing fibrous orange and green contamination in rivers that go through or near the mining site, and that they’d not observed such occurrences before work began on the mine.

COPH and other concerned residents have done their very own analyses of potential metal contamination. Daniel Green, the co-president of the Society to Vanquish Pollution and a former deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, helps to co-ordinate the water evaluation. He said the tests have shown the presence of metals, including heavy metals, especially where the mine expels wastewater into the nearby Eaux-Mortes creek.

NMG plans to contain the mine’s acid-generating waste by encasing it in inert waste rock. Murray Grabinsky, a professor of civil and mineral engineering on the University of Toronto, said the technique follows the industry’s current best practices. But COPH members and other residents say the containment method hasn’t been tested enough, and that harmful chemicals could leak out in the longer term.

Above, the NMG demonstration plant. Below, waste water treatment basins on the Matawinie Mine. Below, a future collecting basin on the Matawinie Mine.

Some who live within the region say the Matawinie mine’s potential economic advantages are almost too good to refuse. “For a small municipality like us, can we easily say no to 175 jobs? I don’t think so,” said Réjean Gouin, the mayor of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. He said the village had been through periods of boom and bust, and that many young individuals are moving away to search out higher opportunities.

He argued that the village’s tourism industry won’t be enough to persuade people to remain for the long run. “I don’t need a retirement village,” he said.

“Do you wish an electrical automobile, do you wish electric buses, do you wish electrification?” he replied when asked about residents’ environmental concerns. “I feel that is the least polluting mine on the planet thus far. Definitely mines in China will likely be way more polluting and with less follow-up.” But he suggested that his support shouldn’t be unconditional. “The mine requires continual monitoring,” he said.

Réjean Gouin, mayor of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, believes the Matawinie mine’s potential economic advantages are almost too good to refuse.

NMG has entered right into a advantages agreement with the village: The municipality is about to receive 2 per cent of the mine’s positive money flow. The corporate has also said it desires to work closely with local First Nations. But Sipi Flamand, the chief of the nearby Atikamekw community of Manawan, said NMG’s outreach has been lacking.

Manawan is about 80 kilometres north of Saint-Michel, Que., up a rutted dirt road. The mine is situated on the First Nation’s ancestral lands, over which it claims sovereignty. But NMG shouldn’t be offering the Atikamekw a advantages agreement much like the one the corporate has promised the village. The First Nation is demanding royalties from the project.

Asked about this in an interview, the corporate’s chief executive, Eric Desaulniers, said that he was aware of the First Nation’s claim, but that the village’s residents are those who’re impacted by the project.

“That’s why we did a cope with the Saint-Michel-des-Saints community,” he said. “That’s why it’s essential for us to acknowledge the impacted community is Saint-Michel-des-Saints.

NMG is required to pay royalties to the Quebec government. The corporate has said it might’t afford to make additional payments to the Atikamekw. Mr. Desaulniers said he hopes the First Nation and the provincial government can work out an agreement between themselves.

Mr. Flamand said First Nations have to have real input into the way in which projects are planned. “If we would like real consultation, it’s not only information sessions that we want to have,” he said.

René Petiquay’s son, Elijon Petiquay, at Cantine Bello restuarant in Manawan, QC.

Opinion of the mine is split in his community, he added, with some members hoping for badly needed jobs and others nervous about environmental impacts and further erosion of their culture and lifestyle.

Residents of each the village and the First Nation have also raised concerns over NMG’s ownership. The corporate’s biggest investor is Pallinghurst Group, a British private equity firm, with a 21-per-cent stake. Investissement Québec is No. 2, at about 10 per cent.

Sipi Flamand, Chief of the Atikamekw of Manawan, on the Manawan boat launch.

May Dagher and Paul Comeau, of the Coalition Against a Mine in Matawinie (COPH). COPH and other concerned residents have done their very own analyses of potential metal contamination.

At its most up-to-date annual meeting, NMG warned that without latest investment it will not come up with the money for to proceed through the remainder of the yr. The corporate averted an analogous crisis in 2018, when Pallinghurst provided additional funding.

Mr. Flamand and others are nervous that if Pallinghurst or one other company – especially one based outside Canada – takes control of NMG, the project could abandon its environmental and social commitments.

Mr. Flamand can be nervous about Pallinghurst’s past dealings with Indigenous peoples. “I’ve heard stories that give me concern, that they don’t treat Indigenous peoples like they need to, especially in Africa.”

In 2018, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled against a land-use agreement that might have allowed a Pallinghurst subsidiary to evict Black farmers in an effort to construct an open-pit platinum mine.

“After we discuss consultation we want to discuss consent, and make certain that each one of the community is on board with the project,” Mr. Flamand said.

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