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The Quebec government is resisting calls for a moratorium on the development of uranium deposits in the province despite threats by doctors in Sept-Îles to quit over plans to open a mine near the town.

Premier Jean Charest's government tabled a new mining act earlier this week that failed to order a moratorium on uranium exploration as provinces such as B.C. and Nova Scotia have done.

Physicians in the North Shore community spent the last year fighting mining company Terra Ventures Inc.'s exploration activities. The doctors, municipal officials, community organizations and residents are worried about potential radioactive contamination of the town's water supply.

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The company recently received government permits to build an access road to a uranium deposit 13 kilometres from the town, near Lake Kachiwiss which flows into the municipal water supply. In the absence of a moratorium, 20 family doctors and specialists say the projected mining activities will eventually become a public-health threat.

"Fearing for the health of the population, our personal health and that of our families, especially our children, we have decided to leave the region, and for many of us, even the province," the doctors said in a letter sent Thursday to Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc.

The doctors are required to give two months notice before leaving the hospital, which is the only one in town.

"I looked at the list [of 20 doctors]and you have anesthetists, a lung specialist, surgeons, gynecologists. I'm telling you that the hospital won't be able to function without them. It wouldn't be able to if only five of them left," said Lorraine Richard, the Parti Québécois Member of the National Assembly for Sept-Îles.

Hospital director-general Martin Beaumont said yesterday that the resignation of 20 physicians could have a catastrophic effect on health-care services. "It would bring our manpower to extremely worrisome levels," he said.

The junior Minister of Natural Resources responsible for mines, Serge Simard, attempted to reassure residents that the opening of a mine is a long way off.

"Right now, the company is at the exploration stage not the development stage," Mr. Simard said. "I just want to tell the people of Sept-Îles that … if they don't want the project, the government will respect their wishes."

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Mr. Bolduc was informed about the protest in the community months ago. He said the doctors are acting prematurely.

"We can't put at risk the health of the population of Sept-Îles. Right now, the company is only exploring and poses no risk. I can understand the concerns of the medical community. But let's take the time to examine this issue together," he said yesterday.

On Oct. 30, a local coalition held a demonstration in Sept-Îles, outlining the health hazards of uranium exploration and mining, at which the doctors warned of the action they were contemplating.

"We wanted to warn the population of the dangers to their health of being exposed to by-products of uranium such as radon," lung specialist Doctor Bruno Imbeault said at the time. "The reason why we took a position was to make sure that the population understood we weren't abandoning them without any advance warning."

A coalition of local politicians, native leaders, environmentalists and other groups will meet on Monday to discuss the next steps.

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