The Matawinie graphite mine, located about two hours north of Montreal, is a small part of an ambitious government plan to make Canada into a manufacturing hub for lithium ion batteries. Electric cars can’t function without somewhere to store electricity, the thinking goes, meaning this country needs battery supply chains if it hopes to stay relevant in a future without fossil fuels.
But the mine has not yet begun producing graphite at commercial scale. It is still in the early phases of construction and – like many Canadian resource projects – it is riven with controversy. Although some locals welcome the economic boost it represents for them and their neighbours, others say that whatever the project’s ultimate benefits, its effect on their community will be destructive.
Currently, the majority of the world’s lithium ion batteries are produced in China. Almost 50 per cent of the material used in each battery is graphite, and that too is a China-dominated industry. The country consolidated graphite production in the 1990s 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 most of the world’s supply of spherical graphite, which is used for manufacturing the anodes of lithium ion batteries.
In 2021, both the federal government and Quebec’s provincial government announced plans to create lithium ion battery supply chains, which would include the mining and refining of battery minerals, as well as 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 building up a domestic battery industry is partly a question of sovereignty. “Energy independence is very important,” he said. “Also independence from fossil fuels.”
The Matawinie mine, which is owned by a company called Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG), will be the largest graphite mine in North America when or if it enters production. It’s located just outside the village of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, Que. The area 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 be an open pit, 430 metres across and more than 2.6 kilometres in length. NMG expects it to produce 100,000 tons of graphite a year over the course of 26 years. The company is also building an advanced battery materials plant in Bécancour, Que., about 100 kilometres west of Quebec City, where it will 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 company’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 become the world’s first all-electric open-pit mine, and that it will achieve carbon neutrality. In 2021, the mine negotiated an agreement with Caterpillar to develop battery-powered surface mining equipment.
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But some residents of the region are worried that the mine is not as clean as it claims to be. NMG has admitted that the project will never achieve full carbon neutrality without carbon offsets, which are credits polluters can buy instead of reducing their own carbon emissions. The sellers of the offsets then take some kind of emissions-reducing action 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 located near Saint-Michel-des-Saints, argued that offsets are not a substitute for direct emissions reductions. “If we follow this line of reasoning, Air Canada could also be considered carbon neutral by buying offsets,” he said.
Mr. Tokateloff and other area residents are also worried about water and air contamination. A group 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 primary environmental risks from open-pit mines are acid drainage and metal contamination. The waste rock contains high levels of sulphides, which if exposed to air and water create sulphuric acid, a corrosive chemical that can harm nearby ecosystems.
Rivest Bio-Forestry Planning, an environmental sciences company tasked with monitoring water quality around the mine for the municipality of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, has observed slight acidification over the past four years in most of the surrounding bodies of water it monitors, and a significant rise in acidity in Lac aux Pierres, which is directly adjacent to the mine.
Anny Malo, the director and head biologist at Rivest, said it is too early to say whether this acidification is linked to mining operations. She added that she has recommended that the municipality also monitor for metal contamination. But it hasn’t yet done so.
COPH and other concerned residents have done their 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, is helping to co-ordinate the water analysis. 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 at 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 future.
Some who live in the region say the Matawinie mine’s potential economic benefits 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 people are moving away to find better opportunities.
He argued that the village’s tourism industry won’t be enough to convince people to stay for the long term. “I don’t want a retirement village,” he said.
“Do you want an electric car, do you want electric buses, do you want electrification?” he replied when asked about residents’ environmental concerns. “I think this is the least polluting mine in the world up to now. Definitely mines in China will be much more polluting and with less follow-up.” But he suggested that his support is not unconditional. “The mine requires continual monitoring,” he said.
NMG has entered into a benefits agreement with the village: The municipality is set to receive 2 per cent of the mine’s positive cash flow. The company has also said it wants 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 located on the First Nation’s ancestral lands, over which it claims sovereignty. But NMG is not offering the Atikamekw a benefits agreement similar to the one the company has promised the village. The First Nation is demanding royalties from the project.
Asked about this in an interview, the company’s chief executive, Eric Desaulniers, said that he was aware of the First Nation’s claim, but that the village’s residents are the ones who are impacted by the project.
“That’s why we did a deal with the Saint-Michel-des-Saints community,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for us to recognize the impacted community is Saint-Michel-des-Saints.”
NMG is required to pay royalties to the Quebec government. The company has said it can’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 need to have real input into the way projects are planned. “If we want real consultation, it’s not just information sessions that we need to have,” he said.
Opinion of the mine is divided in his community, he added, with some members hoping for badly needed jobs and others worried about environmental impacts and further erosion of their culture and way of life.
Residents of both the village and the First Nation have also raised concerns over NMG’s ownership. The company’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.
At its most recent annual meeting, NMG warned that without new investment it would not have enough money to continue through the rest of the year. The company averted a similar crisis in 2018, when Pallinghurst provided additional funding.
Mr. Flamand and others are worried that if Pallinghurst or another company – especially one based outside Canada – takes control of NMG, the project could abandon its environmental and social commitments.
Mr. Flamand is also 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 should, especially in Africa.”
In 2018, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled against a land-use agreement that would have allowed a Pallinghurst subsidiary to evict Black farmers in order to build an open-pit platinum mine.
“When we speak about consultation we need to talk about consent, and make sure that all of the community is on board with the project,” Mr. Flamand said.