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Plans for a controversial nuclear waste storage facility near the Canadian shore of Lake Huron took a serious hit Thursday, when a Canadian environmental official put the project in limbo.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has asked Ontario Power Generation to provide additional data on its deep geologic repository project, including alternate locations.

“The minister’s request for information from (OPG) has paused the timeline for an environmental assessment decision to be issued,” the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said in a public notice. “At a later date, the minister will seek a further timeline extension from the governor in council.”

If completed, the controversial repository would store low- to mid-level radioactive wastes near Kincardine — at a depth of 2,230 feet below the surface and roughly a half-mile from the shore of Lake Huron.

Following the announcement Thursday, a Canadian conservation official described the announcement as “a big decision.” The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission had approved the storage facility, which previously appeared to be moving toward becoming a reality.

For years, the project moved slowly forward under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Opponents hoped the October election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might lead to a change in fortune.

In addition to alternate sites, the environment minister is seeking information on the cumulative environmental effects of the project and an updated list of the Ontario utility’s mitigation commitments on each projected impact.

“Our concern over the years ... is that CNSC is not an independent regulator making decisions,” said Mark Mattson, president of the group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. “It doesn’t look at alternatives and cumulative effects. These are the things that most people were concerned about.”

As OPG’s project moved through the approval process, U.S. officials became more vocal in their opposition. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow welcomed McKenna’s decision.

“Canada is facing a critical decision that will impact generations in both of our countries,” Stabenow said in a press release.

“Given what is at stake, a closer examination of the serious environmental and public health risks of this site is imperative and will hopefully lead our Canadian neighbors to make the right decision to shelve plans for this site once and for all.”

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OPG officials have maintained for more than a decade that the make-up of the strata beneath the surface near Kincardine is ideally suited to housing low- to mid-level nuclear wastes for centuries. On Thursday, a spokesman reiterated the position.

“OPG maintains that a deep geologic repository is the right answer for Ontario’s low and intermediate-level waste, and that the (Kincardine) site is the right location,” the company stated on its website. “OPG is confident that further study will confirm this.”

Others have been less optimistic. In 2014, a former OPG scientist described the plan as seriously flawed and potentially dangerous.

“What they have here is the design of an incendiary bomb, and they don’t even realize it,” said Frank Greening, a former nuclear chemist.

The controversy over the storage facility has focused on its proximity to Lake Huron and its potential to affect the drinking water source for millions of people. In 2015, Michigan congressional lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at forcing the U.S. State Department to get involved by calling for the International Joint Commission to enter the fray.

The IJC is an international body created through a treaty between the United States and Canada to handle border disputes and Great Lakes issues.

“Canada’s plan to permanently store nuclear waste on the shores of Lake Huron is an unnecessary threat to both the U.S. and Canada’s shared water resources,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, wrote in August. “Invoking the (treaty) is the latest action to protect our Great Lakes and to ensure that a thorough review is done in order to know all of the risks associated with this plan.”

State Department officials never moved to request the IJC’s involvement.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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