Five kilometers southwest of the municipality of Saint-Michel-des-Saints (SMDS), located in the MRC de la Matawinie in Lanaudière, in the province of Quebec, the Canadian company Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG) is claiming to develop the largest open-pit graphite mine on the continent. The mine is located within highly valued recreational and tourism areas.
The Matawinie mine project developed by Nouveau Monde Graphite is an open pit mine with a massive pit that is 2.7 km long, 430 m wide and 240 m deep. The territory of Haute-Matawinie comprises forests, lakes, peat bogs and rivers, and this project will result in the dumping of 100 million tonnes of mining waste (some acid-generating), air pollution, loss of biodiversity through deforestation, disrupting and continuous noise, blasting, and dust. It will also generate a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
With probable resources estimated at 59.8 million tonnes, the project claims it will yield 100,000 tonnes of graphite concentrate annually, 60% of which will be used to supply the battery market for electric vehicles. Construction of the mine is scheduled to begin in 2021 and commercial operation is expected in 2023    .
Along with diamond, graphite is one of the crystalline forms of carbon. Its physical properties of thermal and electrical conductivity make it one of the most coveted minerals in the context of the energy transition, in particular for its use in the manufacturing of electric batteries. According to an estimate by the World Bank, graphite will account for 53.8% of the demand for minerals required in the manufacturing of batteries worldwide until 2050 . The quantity of graphite required until 2050 is estimated at 68 million tonnes, equivalent to an annual production of 4.5 million tonnes, which would mean a fourfold increase in current production (1.1 million tonnes in 2020)   . More than half of the current production of graphite is located in China (60%) followed by Mozambique (11%) and Brazil (8.6%). Its geostrategic importance is currently pushing European and North American governments (United States and Canada) to develop their own mining projects as a way to reduce their dependence on China in the supply of these minerals deemed as "critical".Quebec's mining law is outdated and needs to be reformed. On October 20th, 2020, several organizations and elected officials denounced the lack of environmental protection measures in the new government plan on critical minerals announced the same day .
Since the project’s announcement, the local population and various environmental organizations have shown their opposition to it in light of the multiple socio-environmental impacts it could generate.
To produce 100,000 tonnes of graphite concentrate per year, the mine will have to extract almost 2.3 million tonnes of materials annually as the graphite content of the deposit is estimated at just over 4%. The company claims to treat its mining waste on site using a co-disposal method (which separates acid-generating minerals such as pyrite and pyrrhotite from the rest of the materials)  . This solution, the benefits of which are not yet proven, is criticized because of its experimental nature and the possible contamination of groundwater that it could cause (e.g., acidification of groundwater and surface water as well as possible contamination from heavy metals). Indeed, the acid-generating residues indefinitely retain their polluting potential, which generates a risk of contamination over several centuries in the event of an accident, erosion or non-maintenance of the deposit site even after mining has ended.
In addition to posing a risk to several lakes surrounding the mining site, this possible contamination of surface and groundwater could greatly affect Lac Taureau, a regional natural park and a tourism site located less than 10 km downstream from the mining project. Indeed, Lac Taureau is one of the most important resort sites near Montreal. This risk generated the mobilization of the Association for the Protection of Lake Taureau, which published numerous bulletins to inform the local population about the impacts of the project    and the contradictions put forth by the actors promoting it .
Created in 2016 and mobilizing several citizens of the municipality, the Coalition of Opponents to a Mining Project in Haute-Matawinie (COPH) (www.lacoph.com), has been raising awareness among citizens (e.g. through public meetings with independent experts), following municipal officials and publicly denouncing the multiple environmental impacts associated with this project . They have also been demonstrating the potential socio-economic consequences of the project, which could affect the health of the local population and undermine the region's recreational and tourist vocation .
The other serious issue around this project is the fact that the mine site is located in Nitaskinan, the ancestral territory of the Atikamekw First Nation  . The Atikamekw people have long been affected by natural resource development projects on their territory, conducted by private actors in the forestry, hydroelectric, hunting and fishing industries . Moreover, these projects have not generated real and significant economic benefits for the community . Faced with these problems and the deadlock in negotiations with the Canadian government, in 2014, the Atikamekw Nation unilaterally declared its sovereignty over Nitaskinan, reaffirming its ancestral rights over this territory and requiring its consent for all development and use of resources . To this end, the Atikamekw Council of Manawan strongly denounced the government granting a decree to NMG while there is still a lack of social acceptability within the community. The decree is considered to represent a step backwards in reconciliation .
The company, which prides itself on having a social acceptability of 82% for the mining project , misleadingly claims that the project simply divides the community. In this regard, the report of the Bureau of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE) underlined that “in the sampling methodology used in the two surveys commissioned by NMG, the latter had underestimated the population of vacationers who, within the meaning of the impact study of the Matawinie mining project, constitutes an important stakeholder. The sample included 5% of vacationers, whereas they constitute approximately 50% of the population residing in the territory of the municipality of SMDS ".
In its report made public in June 2020, the Quebec BAPE concluded that the Nouveau Monde mining project still raised "important issues of social acceptability" and recommended no less than half a dozen additional studies "before the project can be authorized ”. These additional studies relate to, for example, “an update of the hydrogeological study confirming, on the basis of convincing results from experimental cells validating the various geochemical characterizations, that the mining waste management method, known as co- disposal, is effective and would not indefinitely adversely affect the quality of groundwater. “ (BAPE report - Page 101, own translation)  .
However, in February 2021 the government of Quebec issued a decree authorizing the NMG project without requiring the company to provide the additional studies suggested by the BAPE. This decision has enhanced the anger and concern of mobilized organizations and shows the contradictory discourse and existing inconsistencies between the various government institutions. As May Dagher of the COPH stated: "This decision is all the more dismaying as the Minister of the Economy, Mr. Fitzigibbon, had promised us that Quebec would follow all the recommendations of the BAPE before authorizing such a project” . In response to this decision, a road was temporarily blockaded by Matawinie Ekoni Aci Mobilization .
In conclusion, the project in its current form is not green, sustainable, nor carbon neutral. On the one hand, NMG advocates the green dream discourse (clean energy, responsible minerals) and is developing an extensive media campaign aimed at convincing public opinion that they have the solution to the problem of the shortage of critical materials necessary for the energy transition "We have graphite, tons of graphite, millions of tons of graphite" and to promote their business through greenwashing slogans "we are green, we are keen and we are ready" . And on the other hand, the observation of a much less glowing reality: mining waste, social impacts, greenwashing. The COPH for example made a video to counter the false campaign of NMG by addressing the concept of “sustainable destruction” linked to this mining project .
The electrification of transport is necessary for the energy transition, but it cannot come at any price! And other solutions exist. (e.g: Des mines aux véhicules électriques: 3 conditions pour que l’électrification ait meilleure mine ). The government must now have the courage to reform defunct laws.